"The shelter of a tree—" I began, looking doubtfully into the garden, which had any number of trees.
"The very thing," she assented. "There is a splendid oak yonder, just half a block up the street." And she graciously pointed it out.
I regarded it with disapproval. "Such a rickety old tree," I objected, sulkily.
Followed a silence. She bent her head to one side, and looked up at me. She was now grave with a difference. "A strolling actress isn't supposed to be very particular, is she?" asked Miss Montmorenci. "She wouldn't object to a man's coming by night and trying to scrape acquaintance with her,—a man who wouldn't think of being seen with her by day? She would like it, probably. She—she'd probably be accustomed to it, wouldn't she?" And Miss Montmorenci smiled.
And I, on a sudden, was abjectly ashamed of myself. "Why, you can't think that of me!" I babbled. "I—oh, don't think me that sort, I beg of you! I'm not—really, I'm not, Miss Montmorenci! But I admired you so much to-night—I—oh, of course, I was very silly and very presumptuous, but, really, you know—"
I paused for a little. This was miles apart from the glib talk I had designed.
"My name is Robert Townsend," I then continued; "I am staying at Mr. Charteris's place, just outside of Fairhaven. And I am delighted to meet you, Miss Montmorenci. So now, you see, we have been quite properly introduced, haven't we? And, by the way," I suggested, after a moment's meditation, "there is a very interesting old college here— old pictures, records, historical association and such like. I would like to inspect it, vastly. Can't I call for you in the morning. We can do it together, if you don't mind, and if you haven't already seen it. Won't you, Miss Montmorenci? You really ought to see King's College, you know; it is quite famous, because I was educated there, and no end of other interesting things have happened within its venerable confines."
She had drawn close to the hedge. "You really mean it?" she asked. "You would walk through the streets of this Fairhaven with me—with a barn-stormer, with a strolling actress? You'd be afraid!" she cried, suddenly; "oh, yes, you talk bravely enough, but you'd be afraid, of course, when the time came! You'd be afraid!"
I had taken the hat, but my head was still uncovered. "I don't think," said I, reflectively, "that I am afraid of many things, somehow. But of one thing I am certainly not afraid, and that is of mistaking a good woman for—for anything else. Their eyes are different somehow," I haltingly explained, as to myself; then I smiled. "Shall we say eleven o'clock?"
Miss Montmorenci laid one hand upon the hedgetop and slowly twisted off four box-leaves what while I waited. "I—I believe you," she said, in' meditation; "oh, yes, I believe you, somehow, Mr. Townsend. But we rehearse in the morning, and there is a matinee every day, you know, and—and there are other reasons—" She paused, irresolutely. "No," said Miss Montmorenci, "I thank you, but—good night."
"Oh, I say! am I never to see any more of you?"
A century or so of silence now. Her deliberation seemed endless.
At last: "Matinees and rehearsal keep us busy by day. But I am boarding here for the week, and—and I rest here in the garden after the evening performance. It is cool, it—it is like a glass of water after taking rather bitter medicine. And you aren't a bad sort, are you? No; you look too big and strong and clean, Mr. Townsend. And, besides, you're just a boy—"
"In that case," cried Mr. Townsend, "I shall say goodnight with a light heart." And I turned to go.
"A moment—" said she.
"An eternity," I proffered.
"Promise me," she said, "that you will not come again this week to the Opera House."
My brows were raised a trifle. "I adore the drama," I pleaded.
"And I loathe it. And I act very badly—hopelessly so," said Miss Montmorenci, with an indolent shrug; "and, somehow, I don't want you to see me do it. Why did you mind my calling you a boy? You are, you know."
So I protested I had not minded it at all; and I promised. "But at least," I said, triumphantly, "you can't prevent my remembering Juliet!"
She said of course not, only I was not to be silly.
"And therefore," quoth I, "Juliet shall be remembered always." I smiled and waved my hand. "Au revoir, Signorina Capulet," said I.
And I took my departure. My blood rejoiced, with a strange fervor, in the summer moonlight. It was good to be alive.
He Goes Mad in a Garden
"And, oh, but it is good to be with you again, Signorina!" cried I, as I came with quick strides into the moonlit garden. I caught both her hands in mine, and laughed like an ineffably contented person. There was nothing very subtle about the boy that then was I; at worst, he overacted what he really felt; and just at present he was pleased with the universe, and he saw no possible reason for concealing the fact.
It was characteristic, also, that she made no pretence at being surprised by my coming. She was expecting me and she smiled very frankly at seeing me. Also, in place of the street dress of Tuesday, she wore something that was white and soft and clinging, and left her throat but half concealed. This, for two reasons, was sensible and praiseworthy; one being that the night was warm, and the other that it really broadened my ideas as to the state of perfection which it is possible for the human throat to attain.
"So you don't like my stage-name?" she asked, as I sat down beside her. "Well, for that matter, no more do I." "It doesn't suit you," I protested—"not in the least. Whereas, you might be a Signorina Somebody-or-other, you know. You are dark and stately and—well, I can't tell you all the things you are," I complained, "because the English language is so abominably limited. But, upon the whole, I am willing to take the word of the playbill,—yes, I am quite willing to accept you as Signorina Capulet. She had a habit of sitting in gardens at night, I remember. Yes," I decided, after reflection, "I really think it highly probable that you are old Capulet's daughter. I shall make a point of it to pick a quarrel as soon as possible, with that impertinent, trespassing young Montague. He really doesn't deserve you, you know."
Unaccountably, her face saddened. Then, "Signorina? Signorina?" she appraised the title. "It is rather a pretty name. And the other is horrible. Yes, you may call me Signorina, if you like."
She would not tell me her real name. She was unmarried,—this much she told me, but of her past life, her profession, or of her future she never spoke. "I don't want to talk about it," she said, candidly. "We play for a week in Fairhaven, and here, once off the stage, I intend to forget I am an actress. When I am on the stage," she added, in meditative wise, "of course everyone knows I am not."
I laughed. I found her very satisfying; she was not particularly intelligent, perhaps, but then I was beginning to consider clever women rather objectionable creatures. There was a sufficiency of them among the Charteris house-party—Alicia Wade, for instance, and Pauline Ashmeade and Cynthia Chaytor,—and I thought of them almost resentfully. The world had accorded them not exactly what they most wanted, perhaps, but, at least, they had its luxuries; and they said sharp, cynical things about the world in return. In a woman's mouth epigrams were as much out-of-place as a meerschaum pipe.
Here, on the contrary, was a woman whom the world had accorded nothing save hard knocks, and she regarded it, upon the whole, as an eminently pleasant place to live in. She accepted its rebuffs with a certain large calm, as being all in the day's work. There was, no doubt, some good and sufficient reason for these inconveniences; not for a moment, however, did she puzzle her handsome head in speculating over this reason. She was probably too lazy. And the few favours the world accorded her she took thankfully.
"You see," she explained to me—this was on Thursday night, when I found her contentedly eating cheap candy out of a paper bag,—"the world is really very like a large chocolate drop; it's rather bitter on the outside, but when you have bitten through, you find the heart of it sweet. Oh, how greedy!—you've taken the last candied cherry, and I am specially fond of candied cherries!" And indeed, she looked frankly regretful as I munched it.
I thought her adorable; and in exchange for that last candied cherry I promised her some of the new books,—David Harum certainly, and, When Knighthood Was in Flower, because everybody was reading it, and Mr. Dooley, because they said this young fellow Dunne was nearly as funny as Bill Nye....
In fact, the moon seemed to shine down each night upon that particular garden in a more and more delightful and dangerous manner. And I being a fairly normal and healthy young man, the said moonshine affected me in a fashion which has been peculiar to moonshine since Noah was a likely stripling; my blood appeared to me, at times, to leap and bubble in my veins as if it had been some notably invigorating and heady tipple; and my heart was unreasonably contented, and I gave due thanks for this woman who had come to me unsullied through the world's gutter. For she came unsullied; there was no questioning that.
I pictured her in certain execrable rhymes as the Lady in Comus, moving serene and unafraid among a rabble of threatening, bestial shapes. And I rejoiced that there were women like this in the world,— brave, wholesome, unutterably honest women, whose very lack of cleverness—oh, subtle appeal to my vanity!—demanded a gentleman's protection.
As has been said, I was a well-grown lad, but when I thought in this fashion I seemed to myself, at a moderate computation, ten feet in height,—and just the person, in short, who would be an ideal protector.
Thus far my callow meditations. My course of reasoning was perhaps faulty, but then there are, at twenty-one, many processes more interesting and desirable than the perfecting of a mathematical demonstration. And so, for a little, my blood rejoiced with a strange fervour in the summer moonlight, and it was good to be alive.
Thursday was the twenty-third of the month, so upon that afternoon I wrote to Bettie Hamlyn, in far-off Colorado.
It was a lengthy letter. It told her of how desolate her garden was and of how odd Fairhaven seemed without her. It told how I had half changed my mind, and would probably not go to Europe with Mr. Charteris, after all. Bettie had been at pains, in the letter I was answering, to expatiate upon her hatred of Charteris, whom she had never seen. My letter told her, in fine, of a variety of matters. And it ended:
"I went to the Opera House on Monday. But that, like everything else, isn't the same without you, dear. The woman who played Juliet was, I believe, rather good-looking, but I scarcely noticed her in worrying over the pitiful circumstance that the Apothecary and the Populace of Verona had only one pair of shoes between them. Besides, Mercutio kept putting on a bathrobe and insisting he was Friar Laurence.... I would write more about it, if I had not almost used up all my paper. There is just room to say—"
This was, as I have stated, on Thursday afternoon. Upon the following evening—
"And why not?" I demanded, for the ninth time.
But she was resolute. "Oh, it is dear of you!" she cried; "and I—I do care for you,—how could I help it? But it can't be,—it can't ever be," she repeated wearily; and then she looked at me, and smiled a little. "Oh, boy, boy! dear, dear boy!" she murmured, half in wonder, "how foolish of you and—how dear of you!"
"And why not?" said I—for the tenth time.
She gave a sobbing laugh. "Oh, the great, brave, stupid boy!" she said, and, for a moment, her hand rested on my hair; "he doesn't know what he is doing,—ah, no, he doesn't know! Why, I might hold you to your word! I might sue you for breach of promise! I might marry you out of hand! Think of that! Why I am only a strolling actress, and fair game for any man,—any man who isn't particular," she added, with the first trace of bitterness I had ever observed in her odd, throaty voice. "And you would marry me,—you! you would give me your name, you would make me your wife! You have actually begged me to be your wife, haven't you? Ah, my brave, strong, stupid Bobbie, how many women must love you,—women who have a right to love you! And you would give them all up for me,—for me, you foolish Bobbie, whom you haven't known a week! Ah, how dear of you!" And she caught her breath swiftly, and her voice broke.
"Yes," I brazenly confessed; "I really believe I would give them all up—every blessed one of them—for you." I inspected her, critically, and then smiled. "And I don't think that I would be deserving any very great credit for self sacrifice, either, Signorina."
"My dear," she answered, "it pleases you to call me old Capulet's daughter,—but if I were only a Capulet, and you a Montague, don't you see how much easier it would be? But we don't belong to rival families, we belong to rival worlds, to two worlds that have nothing in common, and never can have anything in common. They are too strong for us, Bobbie,—my big, dark, squalid world, that you could never sink to, and your gay little world which I can never climb to,—your world that would have none of me, even if—even if—" But the condition was not forthcoming.
"The world," said I, in an equable tone—"My dear, I may as well warn you I am shockingly given to short and expressive terms, and as we are likely to see a deal of each other for the future, you will have to be lenient with them,—accordingly, I repeat, the world may be damned."
And I laughed, in unutterable content. "Have none of you!" I cried. "My faith, I would like to see a world which would have none of you! Ah, Signorina, it is very plain to me that you don't realize what a beauty, what a—a—good Lord, what an unimaginative person it was that invented the English language! Why, you have only to be seen, heart's dearest,—only to be seen, and the world is at your feet,—my world, to which you belong of rights; my world, that you are going to honour by living in; my world, that in a little will go mad for sheer envy of blundering, stupid, lucky me!" And I laughed her to scorn.
There was a long silence. Then, "I belonged to your world once, you know."
"Why, of course, I knew as much as that."
"And yet—you never asked—" "Ah, Signorina, Signorina!" I cried; "what matter? Don't I know you for the bravest, tenderest, purest, most beautiful woman God ever made? I doubt you—I! My word!" said I, and stoutly, "that would be a pretty go! You are to tell me just what you please," I went on, almost belligerently, "and when and where you please, my lady. And I would thank you," I added, with appropriate sternness, "to discontinue your pitiful and transparent efforts to arouse unworthy suspicions as to my future wife. They are wasted, madam,—utterly wasted, I assure you."
"Oh, Bobbie, Bobbie!" she sighed; "you are such a beautiful baby! Give me time," she pleaded weakly.
And, when I scowled my disapproval, "Only till tomorrow—only a little, little twenty-four hours. And promise me, you won't speak of this—this crazy nonsense again tonight. I must think."
"Never!" said I, promptly; "because I couldn't be expected to keep such an absurd promise," I complained, in indignation.
"And you look so strong," she murmured, with evident disappointment,— "so strong and firm and—and—admirable!"
So I promised at once. And I kept the promise—that is, I did subsequently refer to the preferable and proper course to pursue in divers given circumstances "when we are married;" but it was on six occasions only, and then quite casually,—and six times, as I myself observed, was, all things considered, an extremely moderate allowance and one that did great credit to my self-control.
"And besides, why not?" I said,—for the eleventh time.
"There are a thousand reasons. I am not your equal, I am just an ostensible actress—Why, it would be your ruin!"
"My dear Mrs. Grundy, I confess that, for the moment, your disguise had deceived me. But now: I recognize your voice."
She laughed a little. "And after all," the grave voice said, which was, to me at least, the masterwork of God, "after all, hasn't one always to answer Mrs. Grundy—in the end?"
"Why, then, you disgusting old harridan," said I, "I grant you it is utterly impossible to defend my behaviour in this matter, and, believe me, I don't for an instant undertake the task. To the contrary, I agree with you perfectly,—my conduct is most thoughtless and reprehensible, and merits your very severest condemnation. For look you, here is a young man, well born, well-bred, sufficiently well endowed with this world's goods, in short, an eminently eligible match, preparing to marry an 'ostensible actress' a year or two his senior,—why, of course, you are,—and of whose past he knows nothing,—absolutely nothing. Don't you shudder at the effrontery of the minx? Is it not heart-breaking to contemplate the folly, the utter infatuation of the misguided youth who now stands ready to foist such a creature upon the circles of which your ladyship is a distinguished ornament? I protest it is really incredible. I don't believe a word of it."
"I cannot quite believe it, either, Bobbie—"
"But you see, he loves her. You, my dear madam, blessed with a wiser estimation of our duties to society, of the responsibilities of our position, of the cost of even the most modest establishment, and, above all, of the sacredness of matrimony and the main chance, may well shrug your shoulders at such a plea. For, as you justly observe, what, after all, is this love? only a passing madness, an exploded superstition, an irresponsible ignis fatuus flickering over the quagmires and shallows of the divorce court. People's lives are no longer swayed by such absurdities; it is quite out of date."
"Yes; you are joking, Bobbie, I know; yet it is really out of date—"
"But I protest, loudly, my hand upon my heart, that it is true; people no longer do mad things for love, or ever did, in spite of lying poets; any more than the birds mate in the spring, or the sun rises in the morning; popular fallacies, my dear madam, every one of them. You and I know better, and are not to be deceived by appearances, however specious they may be. Ah, but come now! Having attained this highly satisfactory condition, we can well afford to laugh at all our past mistakes,—yes, even at our own! For let us be quite candid. Wasn't there a time, dear lady, before Mr. Grundy came a-wooing, when, somehow, one was constantly meeting unexpected people in the garden, and, somehow, one sat out a formidable number of dances during the evening, and, somehow, the poets seemed a bit more plausible than they do today? It was very foolish, of course,—but, ah, madam, there was a time,—a time when even our staid blood rejoiced with a strange fervour in the summer moonlight, and it was good to be alive! Come now, have you the face to deny it,—Mrs. Methuselah?"
"It has not been quite bad to be alive, these last few hours—"
"And, oh, my dear, how each of us will look back some day to this very moment! And we are wasting it! And I have not any words to tell you how I love you! I am just a poor, dumb brute!" I groaned.
Then very tenderly she began to talk with me in a voice I cannot tell you of, and concerning matters not to be recorded.
And still she would not promise anything; and I would give an arm, I think, could it replevin all the idiotic and exquisite misery I knew that night.
He Duels with a Stupid Woman
Yet I approached the garden on Saturday night with an elated heart. This was the last evening of the engagement of the Imperial Dramatic Company. To-morrow the troupe was to leave Fairhaven; but I was very confident that the leading lady would not accompany them, and by reason of this confidence, I smiled as I strode through the city of Fairhaven, and hummed under my breath an inane ditty of an extremely sentimental nature.
As I bent over the little wooden gate, and searched for its elusive latch, a man came out of the garden, wheeling sharply about the hedge that, until this, had hidden him; and simultaneously, I was aware of the mingled odour of bad tobacco and of worse whiskey. Well, she would have done with such people soon! I threw open the gate, and stood aside to let him pass; then, as the moon fell full upon the face of the man, I gave an inarticulate, startled sound.
"Fine evening, sir," suggested the stranger.
"Eh?" said I; "eh? Oh, yes, yes! quite so!" Afterward I shrugged my shoulders, and went into the garden, a trifle puzzled.
I found her beneath a great maple in the heart of the enclosure. It was a place of peace; the night was warm and windless, and the moon, now come to its full glory, rode lazily in the west through a froth of clouds. Everywhere the heavens were faintly powdered with stardust, but even the planets seemed pale and ineffectual beside the splendour of the moon.
The garden was drenched in moonshine—moonshine that silvered the unmown grass-plots, and converted the white rose-bushes into squat-figured wraiths, and tinged the red ones with dim purple hues. On every side the foliage blurred into ambiguous vistas, where fireflies loitered; and the long shadows of the nearer trees, straining across the grass, were wried patterns scissored out of blue velvet. It was a place of peace and light and languid odours, and I came into it, laughing, the possessor of an over-industrious heart and of a perfectly unreasoning joy over the fact that I was alive.
"I say," I observed, as I stretched luxuriously upon the grass beside her, "you put up at a shockingly disreputable place, Signorina." "Yes?" said she.
"That fellow who just went out," I explained—"do you know the police want his address, I think? No," I continued, after consideration, "I am sure I'm not mistaken,—that is either Ned Lethbury, the embezzler, or his twin-brother. It's been five years since I saw him, but that is he. And that", said I, with proper severity, "is a sample of the sort of associate you prefer to your humble servant! Ah, Signorina, Signorina, I am a tolerably worthless chap, I admit, but at least I never forged and embezzled and then skipped my bail! So you had much better marry me, my dear, and say good-bye to your peculating friends. But, deuce take it! I forgot—I ought to notify the police or something, I suppose."
She caught my arm. Her mouth opened and shut again before she spoke. "He—he is my husband," she said, in a toneless voice. Then, on a sudden, she wailed: "Oh, forgive me! Oh, my great, strong, beautiful boy, forgive me, for I am very unhappy, and I cannot meet your eyes— your honest eyes! Ah, my dear, my dear, do not look at me like that,— you don't know how it hurts!"
The garden noises lisped about us in the long silence that fell. Then the far-off whistling of some home going citizen of Fairhaven tinkled shrilly through the night, and I shuddered a bit.
"I don't understand," I commenced, strangely quiet. "You told me—"
"Ah, I lied to you! I lied to you!" she cried. "I didn't, mean to— hurt you. I did not know—I couldn't know—I was so lonely, Bobbie," she pleaded, with wide eyes; "oh, you don't know how lonely I am. And when you came to me that first night, you—why, you spoke to me as the men I once knew used to speak. There was respect in your voice, and I wanted that so; I hadn't had a man speak to me like that for years, you know, Bobbie. And, boy dear, I was so lonely in my squalid world,—and it seemed as if the world I used to know was calling me— your world, Bobbie—the world I am shut out from."
"Yes," I said; "I think I understand."
"And I thought for a week—just to peep into it, to be a lady again for an hour or two—why, it didn't seem wicked, then, and I wanted it so much! I—I knew I could trust you, because you were only a boy. And I was hungry—so hungry for a little respect, a little courtesy, such as men don't accord strolling actresses. So I didn't tell you till the very last I was married. I lied to you. Oh, but you don't understand, this stupid, honest boy doesn't understand anything except that I have lied to him!"
"Signorina," I said, again, and I smiled, resolutely, "I think I understand." I took both her hands in mine, and laughed a little. "But, oh, my dear, my dear," I said, "you should have told me that you loved another man; for you have let me love you for a week, and now I think that I must love you till I die."
"Love him!" she echoed. "Oh, boy dear, boy dear, what a Galahad it is! I don't think Ned ever cared for anything but Father's money; and I— why, you have seen him. How could I love him?" she asked, as simply as a child.
I bowed my head. "And yet—" said I. Then I laughed again, somewhat bitterly. "Don't let's tell stories, Mrs. Lethbury," I said; "it is kindly meant, I know, but I remember you now. I even danced with you once, some seven years ago,—yes, at the Green Chalybeate. I remember the night, for a variety of reasons. You are Alfred Van Orden's daughter; your father is a wealthy man, a very wealthy man; and yet, when your—your husband disappeared you followed him—to become a strolling actress. Ah, no, a woman doesn't sacrifice everything for a man in the way you have done, unless she loves him."
I caught my breath. Some unknown force kept tugging down the corners of my mouth, in a manner that hampered speech; moreover, nothing seemed worth talking about. I had lost her. That was the one thing which mattered.
"Why, of course, I went with him," she assented, a shade surprised; "he was my husband, you know. But as for loving,—no, I don't think Ned ever really loved me," she reflected, with puckering brows. "He took that money for—for another woman, if you remember. But he is fond of me, and—and he needs me."
I did not say anything; and after a little she went on, with a quick lift of speech.
"Oh, what a queer life we have led since then! You can't imagine it, my dear. He has been a tavern-keeper, a drummer,—everything! Why, last summer we sold rugs and Turkish things in Atlantic City! But he is always afraid of meeting someone who knows him, and—and he drinks too much. So we have not got on in the world, Ned and I; and now, after three years, I'm the leading lady of the Imperial Dramatic Company, and he is the manager. I forgot, though,—he is advance-agent this week, for he didn't dare stay in Fairhaven, lest some of the men at Mr. Charteris's should recognize him, you know. He came back only this evening—"
She paused for a moment; a wistful quaver crept into her speech. "Oh, it's queer, it's queer, Bobbie! Sometimes—sometimes when I have time to think, say on long Sunday afternoons, I remember my old life, every bit of it,—oh, I do remember such strange little details! I remember the designs on the bread and butter plates, and all the silver things on my desk, and the plank by my door that always creaked and somehow never got fixed, and the big, shiny buttons on the coachman's coat,— just trifles like that. And—and they hurt, they hurt, Bobbie, those little, unimportant things! They—grip my throat."
She laughed, not very mirthfully. "Then I am like the old lady in the nursery rhyme, and say, Surely, this can't be I. But it is I, boy dear,—a strolling actress, a barn-stormer! Isn't it queer, Bobbie? But, oh, you don't know half—"
I was remembering many things. I remembered Lethbury, a gross man, superfluously genial, whom I had never liked, although I recalled my admiration of his whiskers. I recollected young Amelia Van Orden, not come to her full beauty then, the bud of girlhood scarce slipped; and I remembered very vividly the final crash, the nine days' talk over Lethbury's flight in the face of certain conviction,—by his father-in- law's advice (as some said) who had furnished and forfeited heavy bail for the absconder. Oh, the brave woman who had followed! Oh, the brave, foolish woman! And, for the action's recompense, he was content to exhibit her to yokels, to make of her beauty an article of traffic. Heine was right; there is an Aristophanes in heaven. And then hope blazed.
"Your husband," I said, quickly, "he does not love you? He—he is not faithful to you?"
"No," she answered; "there is a Miss Fortescue—she plays second parts—"
"Ah, my dear, my dear!" I cried, with a shaking voice; "come away, Signorina,—come away with me! He doesn't need you,—and, oh, my dear, I need you so! You can get your divorce and marry me. Ah, Signorina, come away,—come away from this squalid life that is killing you, to the world you are meant for, to the life you hunger for! Come back to the clean, lighthearted world you love, the world that is waiting to pet and caress you just as it used to do,—our world, Signorina! You don't belong here with—with the Fortescues. You belong to us."
I sprang to my feet. "Come now!" said I. "There's Anne Charteris; she is a good woman, if ever lived one. She used to know you, too, didn't she? Well, then, come with me to her, dearest—and tonight! You shall see your father tomorrow. Your father—why, think how that old man loves you, how he has longed for you, his only daughter, all these years. And I?" I spread out my hands, in the tiniest, impotent gesture. "I love you," I said, simply. "I cannot do without you, heart's dearest."
Impulsively, she rested both hands upon my breast; then bowed her head a little. The nearness of her seemed to shake in my blood, to catch at my throat, and my hands, lifted for a moment, trembled with desire of her.
"You don't understand," she said. "I am a Catholic—my mother was one, you know. There is no divorce for us. And—and besides, I'm not modern. I am very old-fashioned, I suppose, in my ideas. Do you know," she asked, with a smile upon the face which lifted confidingly toward me, "I—I really believe the world was made in six days; and that the whale swallowed Jonah, and that there is a real purgatory and a hell of fire and brimstone. You don't, do you, Bobbie? But I do,—and I promised to stay with him till death parted us, you know, and I must do it. I am all he has. He would get even worse without me. I—oh, boy dear, boy dear, I love you so!" And her voice broke, in a great, choking sob.
"A promise—a promise made by an ungrown girl to a brute—a thief—!"
"No, dear," she answered, quietly; "a promise made to God."
And looking into her face, I saw love there, and anguish, and determination. It seemed monstrous, but of a sudden I knew with a dull surety; she loved me, but she thought she had no right to love me; she would not go with me. She would go with that drunken, brutish thief.
And I suddenly recalled certain clever women—Alicia Wade, Pauline Ashmeade, Cynthia Chaytor—the women of that world wherein I was novitiate; beyond question, they would raise delicately penciled eyebrows to proclaim this woman a fool—and to wonder.
They would be right, I thought. She was only a splendid, tender-hearted, bright-eyed fool, the woman that I loved. My heart sickened as her folly rose between us, an impassable barrier. I hated it; and I revered it.
Thus we two stood silent for a time. The wind murmured above in the maples, lazily, ominously. Then the gate clicked, with a vicious snap that pierced the silence like the report of a distant rifle. "That is probably Ned," she said wearily. "I had forgotten they close the barrooms earlier on Saturday nights. So good-bye, Bobbie. You—you may kiss me, if you like."
So for a moment our lips met. Afterward I caught her hands in mine, and gripped them close to my breast, looking down into her eyes. They glinted in the moonlight, deep pools of sorrow, and tender—oh, unutterably tender and compassionate.
But I found no hope there. I lifted her hand to my lips, and left her alone in the garden.
Lethbury was fumbling at the gate.
"Such nuishance," he complained, "havin' gate won't unlock. Latch mus' got los'—po' li'l latch," murmured Mr. Lethbury, plaintively—"all 'lone in cruel worl'!"
I opened the gate for him, and stood aside to let him pass toward his wife.
He Puts His Tongue in His Cheek
It was not long before John Charteris knew of the entire affair, for in those days I had few concealments from him: and the little wizened man brooded awhile over my misery, with an odd wistfulness.
"I remember Amelia Van Orden perfectly," he said—"now. I ought to have recognized her. Only, she was never, in her best days, the paragon you depict. She sang, I recollect; people made quite a to-do over her voice. But she was very, very stupid, and used to make loud shrieking noises when she was amused, and was generally reputed to be 'fast.' I never investigated. Even so, there was not any real doubt as to her affair, in any event, with Anton von Anspach, after that night the sleigh broke down—"
"Oh, spare me all those ancient Lichfield scandals! She is an angel, John, if there was ever one."
"In your eyes, doubtless! So your heart is broken. Yet do you not realize that not a month ago you were heartbroken over Stella Musgrave? Child, I repeat, I envy you this perpetual unhappiness, for I have lost, as you will presently lose, the capacity of being quite miserable."
"But, John, it seems as if there were nothing left to live for, now—"
"At twenty-one! Well, certainly, at that age one loves to think of life as being implacable. But you will soon discover that she is merely inconsequential, and that none of her antics are of lasting importance; and you will learn to smile a deal more often than you weep or laugh."
Then we talked of other matters. It was presently settled that Charteris was to take me abroad with him that summer; and with the thorough approval of my mother.
"Mr. Charteris will be of incalculable benefit to you," she told me, "in introducing you to the very best people, all of whom he knows, of course, and besides you are getting to look older than I, and it is unpleasant to have to be always explaining you are only my stepson, particularly as your father never married anybody but me, though, heaven knows, I wish he had. Of course you will be just as wild as your father and your Uncle George. I suppose that is to be expected, and I daresay it will break my heart, but all I ask of you is please to keep out of the newspapers, except of course the social items. And if you must associate with abandoned women, please for my sake, Robert, don't have anything to do with those who can prove that they are only misunderstood, because they are the most dangerous kind."
I kissed her. "Dear little mother, I honestly believe that when you get to heaven you will refuse to speak to Mary Magdalen."
"Robert, let us remember the Bible says, 'in my Father's house are many mansions,' and of course nobody would think of putting me in the same mansion with her."
It was well-nigh the last conversation I was to hold with my mother; and I was to remember it with an odd tenderness....
Upon the doings of myself in Europe during the ensuing two years I prefer to dwell as lightly as possible. I had long anticipated a sojourn in divers old-world cities; but the London I had looked to find was the London of Dickens, say, and my Paris the Paris of Dumas, or at the very least of Balzac. It is needless to mention that in the circles to which the, quite real, friendship of John Charteris afforded an entry I found little that smacked of such antiquity. I had entered a world inhabited by people who amused themselves and apparently did nothing else; and I was at first troubled by their levity, and afterward envious of it, and in the end embarked upon sedulous attempt to imitate it. I continued to be very boyish; indeed, I found myself by this in much the position of an actor who has made such a success in one particular role that the public declines to patronize him in any other.
It was during this first year abroad that I wrote The Apostates, largely through the urging of John Charteris.
"You have the ability, though, that dances most gracefully in fetters. You will never write convincingly about the life you know, because life is, to you, my adorable boy, a series of continuous miracles, to which the eyes of other men are case-hardened. Write me, then, a book about the past."
"I have thought of it," said I, "for being over here makes the past seem pretty real, somehow. Last month when I was at Ingilby I was on fire with the notion of writing something about old Ormskirk—my mother's ancestor, you know. And since I've seen what's left of Bellegarde I have wanted to write about his wife's people too,—the dukes and vicomtes of Puysange, or even about the great Jurgen. You see, I am just beginning to comprehend that these are not merely characters in Lowe's and La Vrilliere's books, but my flesh and blood kin, like Uncle George Bulmer—"
"And for that reason you want to write about them! You would, though; it is eminently characteristic. Well, then, why should you not immortalize the persons who had the honor of begetting you—oh, most handsome and most naive of children!—by writing your very best about them?" "Because to succeed—not only among the general but with the 'cultured few,' God save the mark!—it is now necessary to write not badly but abominably."
"What would you demand, then, of a book?"
I meditated. "What one most desiderates in the writings of to-day is clarity, and beauty, and tenderness and urbanity, and truth."
"Not a bad recipe, upon the whole, though I would stipulate for symmetry and distinction also—Write the book!"
"Ah," said I, "but this is the kind of book I wish to read when, of course, the mood seizes me. It is not at all the sort of book, though, I would elect to write. The main purpose of writing any book, I take it, is to be read; and people simply will not read a book when they suspect it of being carefully written. That sort of thing gets on a reader's nerves; it's too much like watching a man walk a tight-rope and wondering if he won't slip presently."
"Oh, 'people!'" Charteris flung out, in an extremity of scorn. "Since time was young, a generally incompetent humanity has been willing to pardon anything rather than the maddening spectacle of labour competently done. And they are perfectly right; it is abominable how such weak-minded persons occasionally thrust themselves into a world quite obviously designed for persons who have not any minds at all. But I was not asking you to write a 'best-seller.'"
"No, you were asking me to become an Economist, and be one of 'the few rare spirits which every age providentially affords,' and so on. That is absolute and immoral nonsense. When you publish a novel you are at least pretending to supply a certain demand; and if you don't endeavour honestly to supply it, you are a swindler, no more and no less. No, it is all very well to write for posterity, if it amuses you, John; personally, I cannot imagine what possible benefit you will derive from it, even though posterity does read your books. And for myself, I want to be read and to be a power while I can appreciate the fact that I am a sort of power, however insignificant. Besides, I want to make some money out of the blamed thing. Mother is a dear, of course, but, like all the Bulmers, with age she is becoming tight-fisted."
"And Esau—" Charteris began.
"Yes,—but that's Biblical, and publishing a book is business. People say to authors, just as they do to tailors: 'I want such and such an article. Make it and I'll pay you for it.' Now, your tailor may consider the Imperial Roman costume more artistic than that of today, and so may you in the abstract, but if he sent home a toga in place of a pair of trousers, you would discontinue dealing with him. So if it amuses you to make togas, well and good; I don't quarrel with it; but, personally, I mean to go into the gents' furnishing line and to do my work efficiently."
"Yes,—but with your tongue in your cheek."
"It is the one and only attitude," I sweetly answered, "in which to write if you indeed desire to be read with enjoyment." And presently I rose and launched upon
A Defence of That Attitude
"The main trouble with you, John Charteris, is that you will never recover from being fin de siecle. Yes, you belong to that queer dying nineteenth century. And even so, you have quite overlooked what is, perhaps, the signal achievement of the nineteenth century,—the relegation of its literature to the pharmacopoeia. The comparison of the tailor, I willingly admit, is a bad one. Those who write successfully nowadays must appeal to men and women who seek in fiction not only a means of relaxation, but spiritual comfort as well, and an uplifting rather than a mere diversion of the mind; so that they are really druggists who trade exclusively in intoxicants and hypnotics.
"Half of the customers patronize the reading-matter shops because they want to induce delusions about a world they know, and do not find particularly roseate and the other half skim through a book because they haven't anything else to do and aren't sleepy, as yet.
"Oh, in filling either prescription the trick is much the same; you have simply to avoid bothering the reader's intellect in any way whatever. You have merely to drug it, you have merely to caress it with interminable platitudes, or else with the most uplifting avoidances of anything which happens to be unprintably rational. And you must remember always that the crass emotions of half-educated persons are, in reality, your chosen keyboard; so play upon it with an axe if you haven't any handier implement, but hit it somehow, and for months your name will be almost as famous as that of my mother's father remains the year round because he invented a celebrated baking-powder.
"It is all very well for you to sneer, and talk about art. But there are already in this world a deal more Standard Works than any man can hope to digest in the average lifetime. I don't quarrel with them, for, personally, I find even Ruskin, like the python in the circus, entirely endurable so long as there is a pane of glass between us. But why, in heaven's name, should you endeavour to harass humanity with one more battalion of morocco-bound reproaches for sins of omission, whenever humanity goes into the library to take a nap? For what other purpose do you suppose a gentleman goes into his library, pray? When he is driven to reading he does it decently in bed.
"Besides, if I like a book, why, then, in so far as I am concerned, it is a good book. No, please don't talk to me about 'the dignity of literature'; modern fiction has precisely as much to do with dignity as has vaudeville or billiards or that ridiculous Prohibitionist Party, since the object of all four, I take it, is to afford diversion to people who haven't anything better to do. Thus, a novel which has diverted a thousand semi-illiterate persons is exactly ten times as good as a novel that has pleased a hundred superior persons. It is simply a matter of arithmetic.
"You prefer to look upon writing as an art, rather than a business? Oh, you silly little man, the touchstone of any artist is the skill with which he adapts his craftsmanship to his art's limitations. He will not attempt to paint a sound or to sculpture a colour, because he knows that painting and sculpture have their limitations, and he, quite consciously, recognizes this fact whenever he sets to work.
"Well, the most important limitation of writing fiction nowadays is that you have to appeal to people who would never think of reading you or anybody else, if they could possibly imagine any other employment for that particular vacant half-hour. And you cannot hope for an audience of even moderately intelligent persons, because intelligent persons do not attempt to keep abreast with modern fiction. It is probably ascribable to the fact that they enjoy being intelligent, and wish to remain so.
"You sneer at the 'best-sellers.' I tell you, in sober earnest, that the writing of a frankly trashy novel which will 'sell,' is the highest imaginable form of art. For true art, in its last terms, is the adroit circumvention of an unsurmountable obstacle. I suppose that form and harmony and colour are very difficult to tame; and the sculptor, the musician and the painter quite probably earn their hire. But people don't go to concerts unless they want to hear music; whereas the people who buy the 'best-sellers' are the people who would prefer to do anything rather than be reduced to reading. I protest that the man who makes these people read on until they see how 'it all came out' is a deal more than an artist; he is a sorcerer."
And I paused, a little out of breath.
"What a boy it is!" said Charteris. "Do you know, you are uncommonly handsome when you are talking nonsense? Write the trashy book, then. I never argue with children; and besides, I do not have to read it."
It thus fell about that in the second European year, not very long after my mother's death, The Apostates was given to the world, with what result the world has had a plenty of time wherein to forget.... It was first published in The Quaker Post, with pictures by Roderick King Hill, and in the autumn was brought out as a book by Stuyvesant and Brothers. I made rather a good thing cut of it financially; but the numerous letters I received from the people who had liked it I found extremely objectionable. They were not the right sort of people, I felt forlornly.... So I endured my plaudits without undue elation, for I always held The Apostates to be, at best, a medley of conventional tricks and extravagant rhetoric, inanimate by any least particle of myself,—and its success, say, as though the splendiferous trappings of an emperor were hung upon a clothier's dummy, and the result accepted as an adequate presentation of Charlemagne.
In other words, the book was the most unbridled kind of balderdash, founded on my callow recollections of the Green Chalybeate,—not the least bit accurate, as I was afterward to discover,—with all the good people exceedingly oratorical and the bad ones singularly epigrammatic and abandoned and obtuse. I introduced a depraved nobleman, of course, to give the requisite touch of high society, seasoned the mixture with French and botany and with a trifle of Dolly Dialoguishness, and inserted, at judicious intervals, the most poetical of descriptions, so that the skipping of them might afford an agreeable rest to the reader's eye. There was also a sufficiency of piddling with unsavoury matters to insure the suffrage of schoolgirls.
And a number of persons, in fine, were so misguided as to enthuse over the result. The verb is carefully selected, for they one and all were just the sort of people who "enthuse."
I was vexed, however, at the time to find I could not achieve an appropriate emotion over my mother's death. The news came, to be sure, at a season when I was preoccupied with getting rid of Agnes Faroy.... I have not ever heard of any rational excuse for the quite common assumption that children ought to be particularly fond of their parents. Still, my mother was the prettiest woman I had ever known, though without any claim to beauty, and I had always gloried in our kinship; for I believed her nature to be generous and amiable when she thought of it; and the cablegram which announced the event aroused in me sincere regret that a comely ornament to my progress had been smashed irrevocably.
For a little I reflected as to whither she had vanished, and decided she had been too futile and well-meaning ever to be punished by any reasonable Being. Yet how she would have enjoyed the publication of my book!—without any attempt to read it, however, since she had never, to my knowledge, read anything, with the exception of the daily papers.... And besides, I disliked being unable to have the appropriate emotion.
But I simply could not manage it. For here, in the midst of the Faroy mess,—with Agnes weeping all over the place, and her brothers flourishing pistols and declaiming idiocies,—came the news from Uncle George that my mother had left me virtually nothing. She must have used up, of course, a good share of her Bulmer Baking Powder money in supporting my father comfortably; but she had always lived in such estate as to make me assume she had retained, anyhow, enough of the Bulmer money to last my time. So it was naturally a shock to discover that this monetary attitude was inherited from my mother, who had been cheerfully "living on her principle" all these years, without considering my future. I had no choice but to regard it as abominably selfish.
"I think Claire was afraid to tell you," wrote Uncle George, "how little there was left. In any event, she always shirked doing it, so as to stave off unpleasantness. And when we cabled you how ill she was, it now seems most unfortunate you could not see your way clear to giving up your trip through the chateau country, as your not coming appeared to be on her mind a great deal at the last. I do not wish to seem to criticize you in any way, Robert, but I must say...."
Well, but you know what sort of nonsense that smug gambit heralds in letters from your kindred. Even so, I now owned the Townsend house and an income sufficient for daily bread; and it looked just then as though the magazine editors were willing to furnish the butter, and occasional cakes. So the future promised to be pleasant enough.
Charteris had returned to Algiers in the autumn my book was published, but I elected to pass the winter in England. "Of course," was Mr. Charteris's annotation—"because it is precisely the most dangerous spot in the world for you. And you are to spend October at Negley? I warn you that Jasper Hardress is in love with his wife, and that the woman has an incurable habit of making experiments and an utter inability to acquire experience. Take my advice, and follow Mrs. Monteagle to the Riviera, instead. Cissie will strip you of every penny you have, of course, but in the end you will find her a deal less expensive than Gillian Hardress."
"You possess a low and evil mind," I observed, "since I am fond, in all sincerity, of Hardress, whereas his wife is not even civil to me. Why, she goes out of her way to be rude to me."
"Yes," said Mr. Charteris; "but that is because she is getting worried about her interest in you. And what is the meaning of this, by the way? I found it on your table this morning." He read the doggerel aloud with an unkindly and uncalled-for exaggeration of the rhyming words.
"We did not share the same inheritance,— I and this woman, five years older than I, Yet daughter of a later century,— Who is therefore only wearied by that dance Which has set my blood a-leaping.
"It is queer To note how kind her face grows, listening To my wild talk, and plainly pitying My callow youth, and seeing in me a dear Amusing boy,—yet somewhat old to be Still reading Alice Through the Looking-Glass And Water-Babies.... With light talk we pass,
"And I that have lived long in Arcady— I that have kept so many a foolish tryst, And written drivelling rhymes—feel stirring in me Droll pity for this woman who pities me, And whose weak mouth so many men have kissed."
"That," I airily said, "is, in the first place, something you had no business to read; and, in the second, simply the blocking out of an entrancingly beautiful poem. It represents a mood."
"It is the sort of mood that is not good for people, particularly for children. It very often gets them shot too full of large and untidy holes."
"Nonsense!" said I, but not in displeasure, because it made me feel like such a devil of a fellow. So I finished my letter to Bettie Hamlyn,—for this was on the seventh,—and I went to Negley precisely as I had planned.
"We were just speaking of you," Mrs. Hardress told me, the afternoon of my arrival,—"Blanche and I were talking of you, Mr. Townsend, the very moment we heard your wheels."
I shook hands. "I trust you had not entirely stripped me of my reputation?"
"Surely, that is the very last of your possessions any reasonable person would covet?"
"A palpable hit," said I. "Nevertheless, you know that all I possess in the world is yours for the asking."
"Yes, you mentioned as much, I think, at Nice. Or was it Colonel Tatkin who offered me a heart's devotion and an elopement? No, I believe it was you. But, dear me, Jasper is so disgustingly healthy that I shall probably never have any chance of recreation."
I glanced toward Jasper Hardress. "I have heard," said I, hopefully, "that there is consumption in the family?"
"Heavens, no! he told me that before marriage to encourage me, but I find there is not a word of truth in it."
Then Jasper Hardress came to welcome his guest, and save from a distance I saw no more that evening of Gillian Hardress.
He Samples New Emotions
It was the following day, about noon, as I sat intent upon my Paris Herald that a tiny finger thrust a hole in it. I gave an inaudible observation, and observed a very plump young person in white with disfavour.
"And who may you happen to be?" I demanded.
"I'm Gladys," the young lady responded; "and I've runned away."
"But not without an escort, I trust, Miss Gladys? Really—upon my word, you know, you surprise me, Gladys! An elopement without even a tincture of masculinity is positively not respectable." I took the little girl into my lap, for I loved children, and all helpless things. "Gladys," I said, "why don't you elope with me? And we will spend our honeymoon in the Hesperides."
"All right," said Gladys, cheerfully. She leaned upon my chest, and the plump, tiny hand clasped mine, in entire confidence; and the contact moved me to an irrational transport and to a yearning whose aim I could not comprehend. "Now tell me a story," said Gladys.
So that I presently narrated to Gladys the ensuing
Story of the Flowery Kingdom
"Fair Sou-Chong-Tee, by a shimmering brook Where ghost-like lilies loomed tall and straight, Met young Too-Hi, in a moonlit nook, Where they cooed and kissed till the hour was late: Then, with lanterns, a mandarin passed in state, Named Hoo-Hung-Hoo of the Golden Band, Who had wooed the maiden to be his mate— For these things occur in the Flowery Land.
"Now, Hoo-Hung-Hoo had written a book, In seven volumes, to celebrate The death of the Emperor's thirteenth cook: So, being a person whose power was great, He ordered a herald to indicate He would blind Too-Hi with a red-hot brand And marry Sou-Chong at a quarter-past-eight,— For these things occur in the Flowery Land.
"And the brand was hot, and the lovers shook In their several shoes, when by lucky fate A Dragon came, with his tail in a crook,— A Dragon out of a Nankeen Plate,— And gobbled the hard-hearted potentate And all of his servants, and snorted, and Passed on at a super-cyclonic rate,— For these things occur in the Flowery Land.
"The lovers were wed at an early date, And lived for the future, I understand, In one continuous tete-a-tete,— For these things occur...in the Flowery Land."
Gladys wanted to know: "But what sort of house is a tete-a-tete? Is it like a palace?"
"It is very often much nicer than a palace," I declared,—"provided of course you are only stopping over for a week-end."
"And wasn't it odd the Dragon should have come just when he did?"
"Oh, Gladys, Gladys! don't tell me you are a realist."
"No, I'm a precious angel," she composedly responded, with a flavour of quotation.
"Well! it is precisely the intervention of the Dragon, Gladys, which proves the story is literature," I announced. "Don't you pity the poor Dragon, Gladys, who never gets a chance in life and has to live always between two book-covers?"
She said that couldn't be so, because it would squash him.
"And yet, dear, it is perfectly true," said Mrs. Hardress. The lean and handsome woman was regarding the pair of us curiously. "I didn't know you cared for children, Mr. Townsend. Yes, she is my daughter." She carried Gladys away, without much further speech.
Yet one Parthian comment in leaving me was flung over her shoulder, snappishly. "I wish you wouldn't imitate John Charteris so. You are getting to be just a silly copy of him. You are just Jack where he is John. I think I shall call you Jack."
"I wish you would," I said, "if only because your sponsors happened to christen you Gillian. So it's a bargain. And now when are we going for that pail of water?"
Mrs. Hardress wheeled, the child in her arms, so that she was looking at me, rather queerly, over the little round, yellow head. "And it was only Jill, as I remember, who got the spanking," she said. "Oh, well! it always is just Jill who gets the spanking—Jack."
"But it was Jack who broke his crown," said I; "Wasn't it—Jill?" It seemed a jest at the time. But before long we had made these nicknames a habit, when just we two were together. And the outcome of it all was not precisely a jest....
She told me not long after this, "When I saw Gladys loved you, of course I loved you too." And I hereby soberly record the statement that to have a woman fall thoroughly in love with him is the most uncomfortable experience which can ever befall any man.
I am tolerably sure I never made any amorous declaration. Rather, it simply bewildered me to observe the shameless and irrational infatuation this woman presently bore for me, and before it I was powerless. When I told her frankly I did not love her, had never loved her, had no intention of ever loving her, she merely bleated, "You are cruel!" and wept. When I attempted to restrain her paroxysms of anguish, she took it as a retraction of what I had told her.
I would then have given anything in the world to be rid of Gillian Hardress. This led to scenes, and many scenes, and played the very devil with the progress of my second novel. You cannot write when anyone insists on sitting in the same room with you, on the irrelevant plea that she is being perfectly quiet, and therefore is not disturbing you. Besides, she had no business in my room, and was apt to get caught there.
I remember one of these contentions. She is abominably rouged, and before me she is grovelling, as she must have seen some actress do upon the stage.
"Oh, I lied to you," she wailed; "but you are so cruel! Ah, don't be cruel, Jack!"
Then I lifted the scented woman to her feet, and she stayed motionless, regarding me. She had really wonderful eyes.
"You are evil," I said, "through and through you are evil, I think, and I can't help thinking you are a little crazy. But I wish you would teach me to be as you are, for tonight the hands of my dead father strain from his grave and clutch about my ankles. He has the right because it is his flesh I occupy. And I must occupy the body of a Townsend always. It is not quite the residence I would have chosen— Eh, well, for all that, I am I! And at bottom I loathe you!"
"You love me!" she breathed.
I thrust her aside and paced the floor. "This is an affair of moment. I may not condescend to sell, as Faustus did, but of my own volition must I will to squander or preserve that which is really Robert Townsend."
I wheeled upon Gillian Hardress, and spoke henceforward with deliberation. You must remember I was very young as yet.
"I have often regretted that the colour element of vice is so oddly lacking in our life of to-day. We appear, one and all, to have been born at an advanced age and with ladylike manners, and we reach our years of indiscretion very slowly; and meanwhile we learn, too late, that prolonged adherence to morality trivialises the mind as hopelessly as a prolonged vice trivialises the countenance. I fear this has been said by someone else, my too impetuous Jill, and I hope not, for in that event I might possibly be speaking sensibly, and to be sensible is a terrible thing and almost as bad as being intelligible."
"You are not being very intelligible now, sweetheart. But I love to hear you talk."
"Meanwhile, I am young, and in youth—il faut des emotions, as Blanche Amory is reported to have said, by a novelist named Thackeray, whose productions are now read in public libraries. Still, for a respectable and brougham-supporting person, Thackeray came then as near to speaking the truth as is possible for people of that class. In youth emotions are necessary. Find me, therefore, a new emotion!"
"So many of them, dear!" she promised.
"I do not love you, understand,—and your husband is my friend, and I admire him. But I am I! I have endowments, certain faculties which many men are flattering enough to envy—and I will to make of them a carpet for your quite unworthy feet. I will to degrade all that in me is most estimable, and in return I demand a new emotion."
Well, but women are queer. There is positively no way of affronting them, sometimes. She had not even the grace to note that I had taken a little too much to drink that night.... But over all this part of my life I prefer to pass as quickly as may be expedient.
I remembered, anyway, after Gillian had gone from my room, to write Bettie Hamlyn a post-card. It was no longer, strictly speaking, the twenty-third, but considerably after midnight, of course. Still, it was the writing regularly when I loathed writing letters that counted with Bettie, I reflected; and virtually I was writing on the twenty-third, and besides, Bettie would never know.
And thereafter Gillian Hardress made almost no concealment of her feeling toward me, or employed at best the flimsiest of disguises. All that winter she wrote to me daily, and, when the same roof sheltered us, would slip the scribblings into my hand at odd moments, but preferably before her husband's eyes. She demanded an account of every minute I spent apart from her, and never believed a syllable of my explanations; and in a sentence, she pestered me to the verge of distraction.
And always the circumstance which chiefly puzzled me was the host of men that were infatuated by Gillian Hardress. There was no doubt about it; she made fools of the staidest, if for no better end than that the spectacle might amuse me.
"Now you watch me, Jack!" she would say. And I obediently would watch her wriggling beguilements, and the man's smirking idiocy, with bewilderment.
For in me her allurements aroused, now, absolutely no sensation save that of boredom. Often I used to wonder for what reason it seemed impossible for me, alone, to adore this woman insanely. It would have been so much more pleasant, all around.
But, I repeat, I wish to have done with this portion of my life as quickly as may be expedient. I am not particularly proud of it. I would elide it altogether, were it possible, but as you will presently see, that is not possible if I am to make myself intelligible. And I find that the more I write of myself the more I am affected by the same poor itch for self-exposure which has made Pepys and Casanova and Rousseau famous, and later feminine diarists notorious.
Were I writing fiction, now, I would make the entire affair more plausible. As it stands, I am free to concede that this chapter in my life history rings false throughout, just as any candid record of an actual occurrence does invariably. It is not at all probable that a woman so much older than I should have taken possession of me in this fashion, almost against my will. It is even less probable that her husband, who was by ordinary absurdly jealous of her, should have suspected nothing and have been sincerely fond of me.
But then I was only twenty-two, as age went physically, and he looked upon me as an infant. I was, I think, quite conscientiously childish with Jasper Hardress. I prattled with him, and he liked it. And so often, especially when we three were together—say, at luncheon,—I was teased by an insane impulse to tell him everything, just casually, and see what he would do.
I think it was the same feeling which so often prompted her to tell him, in her flighty way, of how profoundly she adored me. I would wriggle and blush; and Jasper Hardress would laugh and protest that he adored me too. Or she would expatiate upon this or that personal feature of mine, or the becomingness of a new cravat, say; and would demand of her husband if Jack—for so she always called me,—wasn't the most beautiful boy in the world? And he would laugh and answer that he thought it very likely.
They were Americans, I should have said earlier, but to all intents they lived abroad, and had done so for years. Hardress's father had been thoughtful enough to leave him a sufficient fortune to countenance the indulgence of this or any other whim, so that the Hardresses divided the year pretty equally between their real home at Negley and a tiny chateau which they owned near Aix-les-Bains. I visited them at both places.
It was a pleasant fiction that I came to see Gladys. Regularly, I was told off to play with her, as being the only other child in the house. It was rather hideous, for the little girl adored me, and I was beginning to entertain an odd aversion toward her, as being in a way responsible for everything. Had Gillian Hardress never found me cuddling the child, whose sex was visibly a daily aggrievement to Jasper Hardress, however conscientiously he strove to conceal the fact,—so that in consequence "I have to love my precious lamb for two, Jack,"—Gillian would never, I think, have distinguished me from the many other men who, so lightly, tendered a host of gallant speeches.... But I never fathomed Gillian Hardress, beyond learning very early in our acquaintance that she rarely told me the truth about anything.
Also I should have said that Hardress cordially detested Charteris, just as Bettie Hamlyn did, because for some reason he suspected the little novelist of being in love with Hardress's wife. I do not know; but I imagine Charteris had made advances to her, in his own ambiguous fashion, as he was apt to do, barring strenuous discouragement, to every passably handsome woman he was left alone with. I do know he made love to her a little later.
Hardress distrusted a number of other men, for precisely the same reason. Heaven only is familiar with what grounds he had. I merely know that Gillian Hardress loathed John Charteris; she was jealous of his influence over me. But me her husband never distrusted. I was only an amusing and ingenuous child of twenty-two, and not for a moment did it occur to him that I might be in love with his wife.
Indeed, I believe upon reflection that he was in the right. I think I never was.
"Yes," I said, "I am to meet the Charterises in Genoa. Yes, it is rather sudden. I am off to-morrow. I shall not see you dear good people for some time, I fancy...."
When Hardress had gone the woman said in a stifled voice: "No, I will not dance. Take me somewhere—there is a winter-garden, I know—"
"No, Jill," said I, with decision. "It's no use. I am really going. We will not argue it."
Gillian Hardress watched the dancers for a moment, as with languid interest. "You fear that I am going to make a scene. Well! I can't. You have selected your torture chamber too carefully. Oh, after all that's been between us, to tell me here, to my husband's face, in the presence of some three hundred people, without a moment's warning, that you are 'off to-morrow!' It—it is for good, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said. "It had to be—some time, you know."
"No, don't look at me. Watch the dancing, I will fan myself and seem bored. No, I shall not do anything rash."
I was uncomfortable. Yet at bottom it was the theatric value of this scene which impressed me,—the gaiety and the brilliance on every side of her misery. And I did not look at her. I did just as she ordered me.
"I was proud once. I haven't any pride now. You say you must leave me. Oh, dearest boy, if you only knew how unhappy I will be without you, you could not leave me. Sweetheart, you must know how I love you. I long every minute to be with you, and to see you even at a distance is a pleasure. I know it is not right for me to ask or expect you to love me always, but it seems so hard."
"It's no use, Jill—"
"Is it another woman? I won't mind. I won't be jealous. I won't make scenes, for I know you hate scenes, and I have made so many. It was because I cared so much. I never cared before, Jack. You have tired of me, I know. I have seen it coming. Well, you shall have your way in everything. But don't leave me, dear! oh, my dear, my dear, don't leave me! Oh, I have given you everything, and I ask so little in return—just to see you sometimes, just to touch your hand sometimes, as the merest stranger might do...."
So her voice went on and on while I did not look at her. There was no passion in this voice of any kind. It was just the long monotonous wail of some hurt animal.... They were playing the Valse Bleu, I remember. It lasted a great many centuries, and always that low voice was pleading with me. Yes, it was uncommonly unpleasant; but always at the back of my mind some being that was not I was taking notes as to precisely how I felt, because some day they might be useful, for the book I had already outlined. "It is no use, Jill," I kept repeating, doggedly.
Then Armitage came smirking for his dance. Gillian Hardress rose, and her fan shut like a pistol-shot. She was all in black, and throughout that moment she was more beautiful than any other woman I have ever seen.
"Yes, this is our dance," she said, brightly. "I thought you had forgotten me, Mr. Armitage. Well! good-bye, Mr. Townsend. Our little talk has been very interesting—hasn't it? Oh, this dress always gets in my way—"
She was gone. I felt that I had managed affairs rather crudely, but it was the least unpleasant way out, and I simply had not dared to trust myself alone with her. So I made the best of an ill bargain, and remodeled the episode more artistically when I used it later, in Afield.
He Postures Among Chimney-Pots
I met the Charterises in Genoa, just as I had planned. Anne's first exclamation was, "Heavens, child, how dissipated you look! I would scarcely have known you."
Charteris said nothing. But he and I lunched at the Isotta the following day, and at the conclusion of the meal the little man leaned back and lighted a cigarette.
"You must overlook my wife's unfortunate tendency toward the most unamiable of virtues. But, after all, you are clamantly not quite the boy I left at Liverpool last October. Where are your Hardresses now?"
"In London for the season. And why is your wife rushing on to Paris, John?"
"Shopping, as usual. Yes, I believe I did suggest it was as well to have it over and done with. Anne is very partial to truisms. Besides, she has an aunt there, you know. Take my advice, and always marry a woman who is abundantly furnished with attractive and visitable relations, for this precaution is the true secret of every happy marriage. We may, then, regard the Hardress incident as closed?"
"Oh, Lord, yes!" said I, emphatically.
"Well, after all, you have been sponging off them for a full year. The adjective is not ill-chosen, from what I hear. I fancy Mrs. Hardress has found you better company after she had mixed a few drinks for you, and so—But a truce to moral reflections! for I am desirous once more to hear the chimes at midnight. I hear Francine is in Milan?"
"There is at any rate in Milan," said I, "a magnificent Gothic Cathedral of international reputation; and upon the upper gallery of its tower, as my guidebook informs me, there is a watchman with an efficient telescope. Should I fail to meet that watchman, John, I would feel that I had lived futilely. For I want both to view with him the Lombard plain, and to ask him his opinion of Cino da Pistoia, and as to what was in reality the middle name of Cain's wife."
Francine proved cordial; but John Charteris was ever fickle, and not long afterward an Italian countess, classic in feature, but in coloring smacking of an artistic renaissance, had drawn us both to Switzerland, and thence to Liege. It was great fun, knocking about the Continent with John, for he knew exactly how to order a dinner, and spoke I don't know how many languages, and seemed familiar with every side-street and back-alley in Europe. For myself, my French as acquired in Fairhaven appeared to be understood by everybody, but in replying very few of the natives could speak their own foolish language comprehensibly. I could rarely make head or tail out of what they were jabbering about.
I was alone that evening, because Annette's husband had turned up unexpectedly; and Charteris had gone again to hear Nadine Neroni, the new prima donna, concerning whom he and his enameled Italian friend raved tediously. But I never greatly cared for music; besides, the opera that night was Faust; the last act of which in particular, when three persons align before the footlights and scream at the top of their voices, for a good half hour, about how important it is not to disturb anybody, I have never been able to regard quite seriously.
So I was spending this evening sedately in my own apartments at the Continental; and meanwhile I lisped in numbers that (or I flattered myself) had a Homeric tang; and at times chewed the end of my pencil meditatively. "From present indications," I was considering, "that Russian woman is cooking something on her chafing-dish again. It usually affects them that way about dawn."
I began on the next verse viciously, and came a cropper over the clash of two sibilants, as the distant clamour increased. "Brutes!" said I, disapprovingly. "Sere, clear, dear—Now they have finished, 'Jamais, monsieur', and begun crying, 'Fire!' Oh, this would draw more than three souls out of a weaver, you know! Mere, near, hemisphere—no, but the Greeks thought it was flat. By Jove! I do smell smoke!"
Wrapping my dressing-gown about me—I had afterward reason to thank the kindly fates that it was the green one with the white fleurs-de-lis, and not my customary, unspeakably disreputable bath-robe, scorched by the cigarette ashes of years,—I approached the door and peeped out into the empty hotel corridor. The incandescent lights glimmered mildly through a gray haze which was acrid and choking to breathe; little puffs of smoke crept lazily out of the lift-shaft just opposite; and down-stairs all Liege was shouting incoherently, and dragging about the heavier pieces of hotel furniture.
"By Jove!" said I, and whistled a little disconsolately as I looked downward through the bars about the lift-shaft.
"Do you reckon," spoke a voice—a most agreeable voice,—"we are in any danger?"
The owner of the voice was tall; not even the agitation of the moment prevented my observing that, big as I am, her eyes were almost on a level with my shoulder. They were not unpleasant eyes, and a stray dream or two yet lingered under their heavy lids. The owner of the voice wore a strange garment that was fluffy and pink,—pale pink like the lining of a sea-shell—and billows of white and the ends of various blue ribbons peeped out about her neck. I made mental note of the fact that disordered hair is not necessarily unbecoming; it sometimes has the effect of an unusually heavy halo set about the face of a half-awakened angel.
"It would appear," said I, meditatively, "that, in consideration of our being on the fifth floor, with the lift-shaft drawing splendidly, and the stairs winding about it,—except the two lower flights, which have just fallen in,—and in consideration of the fire department's probable incompetence to extinguish anything more formidable than a tar-barrel, —yes, it would appear, I think, that we might go further than 'dangerous' and find a less appropriate adjective to describe the situation."
"You mean we cannot get down?" The beautiful voice was tremulous.
And my silence made reply.
"Well, then," she suggested, cheerfully, after due reflection, "since we can't go down, why not go up?"
As a matter of fact, nothing could be more simple. We were on the top floor of the hotel, and beside us, in the niche corresponding to the stairs below, was an iron ladder that led to a neatly-whitewashed trapdoor in the roof. Adopting her suggestion, I pushed against this trap-door and found that it yielded readily; then, standing at the top of the ladder, I looked about me on a dim expanse of tiles and chimneys; yet farther off were the huddled roofs and gables of Liege, and just a stray glimpse of the Meuse; and above me brooded a clear sky and the naked glory of the moon.
I lowered my head with a distinct sigh of relief.
"I say," I called, "it is infinitely nicer up here—superb view of the city, and within a minute's drop of the square! Better come up."
"Go first," said she; and subsequently I held for a moment a very slender hand—a ridiculously small hand for a woman whose eyes were almost on a level with my shoulder,—and we two stood together on the roof of the Hotel Continental. We enjoyed, as I had predicted, an unobstructed view of Liege and of the square, wherein two toy-like engines puffed viciously and threw impotent threads of water against the burning hotel beneath us, and, at times, on the heads of an excited throng erratically clad.
But I looked down moodily, "That," said I, as a series of small explosions popped like pistol shots, "is the cafe; and, oh, Lord! there goes the only decent Scotch in all Liege!"
"There is Mamma!" she cried, excitedly; "there!" She pointed to a stout woman, who, with a purple? shawl wrapped about her head, was wringing her hands as heartily as a bird-cage, held in one of them, would permit. "And she has saved Bill Bryan!"
"In that case," said I, "I suppose it is clearly my duty to rescue the remaining member of the family. You see," I continued, in bending over the trap-door and tugging at the ladder, "this thing is only about twenty feet long; but the kitchen wing of the hotel is a little less than that distance from the rear of the house behind it; and with this as a bridge I think we might make it. In any event, the roof will be done for in a half-hour, and it is eminently worth trying." I drew the ladder upward.
Then I dragged this ladder down the gentle slant of the roof, through a maze of ghostly chimneys and dim skylights, to the kitchen wing, which was a few feet lower than the main body of the building. I skirted the chimney and stepped lightly over the eaves, calling, "Now then!" when a muffled cry, followed by a crash in the courtyard beneath, shook my heart into my mouth. I turned, gasping; and found the girl lying safe, but terrified, on the verge of the roof.
"It was a bucket," she laughed, "and I stumbled over it,—and it fell—and—and I nearly did,—and I am frightened!"
And somehow I was holding her hand in mine, and my mouth was making irrelevant noises, and I was trembling. "It was close, but—look here, you must pull yourself together!" I pleaded; "because we haven't, as it were, the time for airy badinage and repartee—just now."
"I can't," she cried, hysterically. "Oh, I am so frightened! I can't!"
"You see," I said, with careful patience, "we must go on. I hate to seem too urgent, but we must, do you understand?" I waved my hand toward the east. "Why, look!" said I, as a thin tongue of flame leaped through the open trap-door and flickered wickedly for a moment against the paling gray of the sky.
She saw and shuddered. "I'll come," she murmured, listlessly, and rose to her feet.
I heaved another sigh of relief, and waving her aside from the ladder, dragged it after me to the eaves of the rear wing. As I had foreseen, this ladder reached easily to the eaves of the house behind the rear wing, and formed a passable though unsubstantial-looking bridge. I regarded it disapprovingly.
"It will only bear one," said I; "and we will have to crawl over separately after all. Are you up to it?"
"Please go first," said she, very quiet. And, after gazing into her face for a moment, I crept over gingerly, not caring to look down into the abyss beneath.
Then I spent a century in impotence, watching a fluffy, pink figure that swayed over a bottomless space and moved forward a hair's breadth each year. I made no sound during this interval. In fact, I do not remember drawing a really satisfactory breath from the time I left the hotel-roof, until I lifted a soft, faint-scented, panting bundle to the roof of the Councillor von Hollwig.
"You are," I cried, with conviction, "the bravest, the most—er—the bravest woman I ever knew!" I heaved a little sigh, but this time of content. "For I wonder," said I, in my soul, "if you have any idea what a beauty you are! what a wonderful, unspeakable beauty you are! Oh, you are everything that men ever imagined in dreams that left them weeping for sheer happiness—and more! You are—you, and I have held you in my arms for a moment; and, before high heaven, to repurchase that privilege I would consent to the burning of three or four more hotels and an odd city or so to boot!" But, aloud, I only said, "We are quite safe now, you know."
She laughed, bewilderingly. "I suppose," said she, "the next thing is to find a trap-door."
But there were, so far as we could discover, no trapdoors in the roof of the Councillor von Hollwig, or in the neighbouring roofs; and, after searching three of them carefully, I suggested the propriety of waiting till dawn to be melodramatically rescued.
"You see," I pointed out, "everybody is at the fire over yonder. But we are quite safe here, I would say, with an entire block of houses to promenade on; moreover, we have cheerful company, eligible central location in the very heart of the city, and the superb spectacle of a big fire at exactly the proper distance. Therefore," I continued, and with severity, "you will please have the kindness to explain your motives for wandering about the corridors of a burning hotel at four o'clock in the morning."
She sat down against a chimney and wrapped her gown about her. "I sleep very soundly," said she, "and we did both museums and six churches and the Palais de Justice and a deaf and dumb place and the cannon-foundry today,—and the cries awakened me,—and I reckon Mamma lost her head."
"And left you," thought I, "left you—to save a canary-bird! Good Lord! And so, you are an American and a Southerner as well."
"And you?" she asked.
"Ah—oh, yes, me!" I awoke sharply from admiration of her trailing lashes. The burning hotel was developing a splendid light wherein to see them. "I was writing—and I thought that Russian woman had a few friends to supper,—and I was looking for a rhyme when I found you," I concluded, with a fine coherence.
She looked up. It was incredible, but those heavy lashes disentangled quite easily. I was seized with a desire to see them again perform this interesting feat. "Verses?" said she, considering my slippers in a new light.
"Yes," I admitted, guiltily—"of Helen."
She echoed the name. It is an unusually beautiful name when properly spoken. "Why, that is my name, only we call it Elena."
"Late of Troy Town," said I, in explanation.
"Oh!" The lashes fell into their former state. It was hopeless this time; and manual aid would be required, inevitably. "I should think," said my compatriot, "that live women would be more—inspiring"
"Surely," I assented. I drew my gown about me and sat down. "But, you see, she is alive—to me." And I dwelt a trifle upon the last word.
"One would gather," said she, meditatively, "that you have an unrequited attachment for Helen of Troy."
I sighed a melancholy assent. The great eyes opened to their utmost. The effect was as disconcerting as that of a ship firing a broadside at you, but pleasanter. "Tell me all about it," said she, coaxingly.
"I have always loved her," I said, with gravity. "Long ago, when I was a little chap, I had a book—Stories of the Trojan War, or something of the sort. And there I first read of Helen—and remembered. There were pictures—outline pictures,—of quite abnormally straight-nosed warriors, with flat draperies which amply demonstrated that the laws of gravity were not yet discovered; and the pictures of slender goddesses, who had done their hair up carefully and gone no further in their dressing. Oh, the book was full of pictures,—and Helen's was the most manifestly impossible of them all. But I knew—I knew, even then, of her beauty, of that flawless beauty which made men's hearts as water and drew the bearded kings to Ilium to die for the woman at sight of whom they had put away all memories of distant homes and wives; that flawless beauty which buoyed the Trojans through the ten years of fighting and starvation, just with delight in gazing upon Queen Helen day by day, and with the joy of seeing her going about their streets. For I remembered!" And as I ended, I sighed effectively.
"I know," said she.
"'Or ever the knightly years had gone With the old world to the grave, I was a king in Babylon And you were a Christian slave.'"
"Yes, only I was the slave, I think, and you—er—I mean, there goes the roof, and it is an uncommonly good thing for posterity you thought of the trap-door. Good thing the wind is veering, too. By Jove! look at those flames!" I cried, as the main body of the Continental toppled inward like a house of cards; "they are splashing, actually splashing, like waves over a breakwater!"
I drew a deep breath and turned from the conflagration, only to encounter its reflection in her widened eyes. "Yes, I was a Trojan warrior," I resumed; "one of the many unknown men who sought and found death beside Scamander, trodden down by Achilles or Diomedes. So they died knowing they fought in a bad cause, but rapt with that joy they had in remembering the desire of the world and her perfect loveliness. She scarcely knew that I existed; but I had loved her; I had overheard some laughing words of hers in passing, and I treasured them as men treasure gold. Or she had spoken, perhaps—oh, day of days!—to me, in a low, courteous voice that came straight from the back of the throat and blundered very deliciously over the perplexities of our alien speech. I remembered—even as a boy, I remembered."
She cast back her head and laughed merrily. "I reckon," said she, "you are still a boy, or else you are the most amusing lunatic I ever met."
"No," I murmured, and I was not altogether playacting now, "that tale about Polyxo was a pure invention. Helen—and the gods be praised for it!—can never die. For it is hers to perpetuate that sense of unattainable beauty which never dies, which sways us just as potently as it did Homer, and Dr. Faustus, and the Merovingians too, I suppose, with memories of that unknown woman who, when we were boys, was very certainly some day, to be our mate. And so, whatever happens, she
"Abides the symbol of all loveliness, Of beauty ever stainless in the stress Of warring lusts and fears.
"For she is to each man the one woman that he might have loved perfectly. She is as old as youth, she is more old than April even, and she is as ageless. And, again like youth and April, this Helen goes about the world in varied garments, and to no two men is her face the same. Oh, very often she transmutes her fleshly covering. But through countless ages I, like every man alive, have followed her, and fought for her, and won her, and have lost her in the end,—but always loving her as every man must do. And I prefer to think that some day—" But my voice here died into a whisper, which was in part due to emotion and partly to an inability to finish the sentence satisfactorily. The logic of my verses when thus paraphrased from memory, seemed rather vague.
"Yes—like Pythagoras" she said, a bit at random. "Oh, I know. There really must be something in it, I have often thought, because you actually do remember having done things before sometimes."
"And why not? as the March Hare very sensibly demanded." But now my voice was earnest. "Yes, I believe that Helen always comes. Is it simply a proof that I, too, am qualified to sit next to the Hatter?" I spread out my hands in a helpless little gesture. "I do not know. But I believe that she will come,—and by and by pass on, of course, as Helen always does."
"You will know her?" she queried, softly.
Now I at last had reached firm ground. "She will be very tall," I said, "very tall and exquisite,—like a young birch-tree, you know, when its new leaves are whispering over to one another the secrets of spring. Yes, that is a ridiculous sounding simile, but it expresses the general effect of her—the coup d'oeil, so to speak,—quite perfectly. Moreover, her hair will be a miser's dream of gold; and it will hang heavily about a face that will be—quite indescribable, just as the dawn yonder is past the utmost preciosity of speech. But her face will flush and will be like the first of all anemones to peep through black, good-smelling, and as yet unattainable earth; and her eyes will be deep, shaded wells where, just as in the proverb, truth lurks."