But now I could not see her eyes.
"No," I conceded, "I was wrong. For when men talk to her as—as they cannot but talk to her, her face will flush dull red, almost like smouldering wood; and she will smile a little, and look out over a great fire, such as that she saw on the night when Ilium was sacked and the slain bodies were soft under her stumbling feet, as she fled through flaming Troy Town. And then I shall know her."
My companion sighed; and the woes of centuries weighed down her eyelids obstinately. "It is bad enough," she lamented, "to have lost all one's clothes—that new organdie was a dream, and I had never worn it; but to find yourself in a dressing-gown—at daybreak, on a strange roof—and with an unintroduced lunatic—is positively terrible!"
The unintroduced lunatic rose to his feet and waved his hand toward the east. The dawn was breaking in angry scarlet and gold that spread like fire over half the visible horizon; the burning hotel shut out the remaining half with tall flames, which shouldered one another monotonously, and seemed lustreless against the pure radiance of the sky. Chill daylight showed in melting patches through the clouds of black smoke overhead.
It was a world of fire, transfigured by the austere magnificence of dawn and the grim splendour of the shifting, roaring conflagration; and at our feet lay the orchard of the Councillor von Hollwig, and there the awakened birds piped querulously, and sparks fell crackling among apple-blossoms.
"Ilium is ablaze," I quoted; "and the homes of Pergamos and its towering walls are now one sheet of flame."
She inspected the scene, critically. "It does look like Ilium," she admitted. "And that," peering over the eaves into the deserted by-street, "looks like a milkman."
I was unable to deny this, though an angry concept crossed my mind that any milkman, with commendable tastes and feelings, would at this moment be gaping at the fire at the other end of the block, rather than prosaically measuring quarts at the Councillor's side-entrance. But there was no help for it, when chance thus unblushingly favoured the proprieties; in consequence I clung to a water-pipe, and explained the situation to the milkman, with a fretted mind and King's College French.
I turned to my companion. She was regarding the burning hotel with an impersonal expression.
"Now I would give a deal," I thought, "to know just how long you would prefer that milkman to take in coming back."
He Faces Himself and Remembers
Into the lobby of the Hotel d'Angleterre strolled, an hour later, a tall young man, in a green dressing-gown, and inquired for Charteris. The latter, in evening dress, was mournfully breakfasting in his new quarters.
Charteris sprang to his feet. I saw, with real emotion, that he had been weeping; but now he was all flippancy. "My dear boy! I have just torn my hair and the rough drafts of several cablegrams on your account! Sit down at once, and try the bacon, since, for a wonder, it is not burnt—and, in passing, I had thought of course that you were."
Instead, I took a drink, and went to sleep upon the nearest sofa.
I was very tired, but I awakened about noon and managed to procure enough clothes to make myself not altogether unpresentable to the public eye. Charteris had gone already about his own affairs, and I did not regret it, for I meant, without delay, to follow up my adventure of the night before.
But when I had come out of the Rue de la Casquette, and was approaching the statue of Gretry, I came upon a very ornately-dressed woman, who was about to enter en open carriage. I stared; and preposterous as it was, I knew that I was not mistaken. And I said aloud, "Signorina!"
It was a long while before she said, "Don't—don't ever call me that again!" And since the world in general appeared just then to be largely flavoured with the irresponsibility of dreams, it did not surprise me that we were presently alone in somebody's sitting-room.
"I have seen you twice in Liege," she said. "I suppose this had to come about. I would have preferred to avoid it, though. Well! che sara! You don't care for music, do you? No,—otherwise you would have known earlier that I am Nadine Neroni now."
"Ah!" I said, very quietly. I had heard, as everybody had, a deal concerning the Neroni. "I think, if you will pardon me, I will not intrude upon Baron von Anspach's hospitality any longer," I said.
"That is unworthy of you,—no, I mean it would have been unworthy of a boy we knew of." There was a long pier-glass in these luxurious rooms. She led me to it now. "Look, Bobbie. We have altered a little, haven't we? I at least, am unmistakable. 'Their eyes are different, somehow', you remember. You haven't changed as much,—not outwardly. I think you are like Dorian Gray. Yes, as soon—as soon as I could afford it, I read every book you ever talked about, I think. It was damnably foolish of me. For I've heard things. And there was a girl I tried to help in London—an Agnes Faroy—"
"Ah!" I said.
"She had your picture even then, poor creature. She kissed it just before she died. She didn't know that I had ever heard of you. She never knew. Oh, how could you!" the Neroni said, with something very like a sob, "Or were you always—just that, at bottom?"
"And have you ever noticed, Mademoiselle Neroni, that every one of us is several people? In consequence I must confess to have been wondering—?"
"Well! I wasn't. You won't believe it now, perhaps. And it doesn't matter, anyhow." Her grave voice lifted and upon a sudden was changed. "Bobbie, when you had gone I couldn't stand it! I couldn't let you ruin your life for me, but I could not go on as I had done before—Oh, well, you'll never understand," she added, wearily. "But Von Anspach had always wanted me to go with him. So I wrote to him, at the Embassy. And after all, what is the good of talking—now!"
We two were curiously quiet. "No, I suppose there is no good in talking now." We stood there, as yet, hand in hand. The mirror was candid. "Oh, Signorina, I want to laugh as God laughs, and I cannot!"
But I lack the heart to set down all that brief and dreary talk of ours. How does it matter what we said? We two at least knew, even as we talked, that all we said meant in the outcome, nothing. Yet we talked awhile and spoke, I think, quite honestly.
She was not unhappy; and there were inbred Lichfeldian traditions which prompted me to virtuous indignation over her defects in remorse and misery. There were my memories, too.
"I don't sing very well, of course, but then I'm not dependent on my singing, you know. Oh, why not be truthful? And Von Anspach always sees to it I get the tendered of criticism—in print. And, moreover, I've a deal put by. I'm a miser, he says, and I suppose I am, because I know what it is to be poor. So when the rainy day comes—as of course it will,—I'll have quite enough to purchase a serviceable umbrella. Meanwhile, I have pretty much everything I want. People talk of course, but it is only on the stage they ever drive you out into a snow-storm. Besides, they don't talk to me."
In fine, I found that the Neroni was a very different being from Miss Montmorenci....
Then I left her. I had not any inclination just now to pursue my fair Elena. Rather I sat alone in my new bedroom, thinking, confusedly, first of Amelia Van Orden, and how I danced with her a good eight years ago; of that woman who had come to me in remote Fairhaven, coming through the world's gutter, unsullied,—because that much I yet believe, although I do not know.... She may have been always the same, even in the old days when Lichfield thought her "fast," and she was more or less "compromised,"—and years before I met her, a blind, inexperienced boy. Only she may then have been a better actress than I suspected.... I thought, in any event, of those execrable rhymes that likened her to the Lady in Comus, moving serene and unafraid among a rabble of threatening bestial shapes; and I thought of the woman who would, by this time, be with Von Anspach.
For here again were inbred Lichfieldian traditions of the sort I rarely dare confess to, even to myself, because they are so patently hidebound and ridiculous. These traditions told me that this woman, whom I had loved, was Von Anspach's harlot. I might—and I did—endeavor to be ironical and to be broadminded and to be up-to-date about the whole affair, and generally to view the matter through the sophisticated eyes of the author of The Apostates, that Robert Etheridge Townsend who was a connoisseur of ironies and human foibles; but these futilities did no good at all. Lichfield had got at and into me when I was too young to defend myself; and I could no more alter the inbred traditions of Lichfield, that were a part of me, than a carpet could change its texture. My traditions merely told me that the dear woman whom I remembered had come—in fleeing from discomforts which were unbearable, if that mattered—to be Von Anspach's harlot: and finding her this, my traditions declined to be the least bit broadminded. In Lichfield such women were simply not respectable; nor could you get around that fact by going to Liege.
There was in the room a Matin, which contained a brief account of the burning of the Continental, and a very lengthy one of the Neroni's appearance the night before. Drearily, to keep from thinking, I read a deal concerning la gracieuse cantatrice americaine. Whether or not she had made a fool of me with histrionics in Fairhaven, there was no doubt that she had chosen wisely in forsaking Lethbury, and the round of village "Opera Houses." She had chosen, after all, and precisely as I had done, to make the most of youth while it lasted; and she appeared, just now, to harvest prodigally.
"On jouait Faust," I read, "et jamais le celebre personnage de Goethe n'adore plus exquise Gretchen. Miss Nadine Neroni est, en effet, une ideale Marguerite a la taille bien prise, au visage joli eclaire des deux yeux grands et doux. Et lorsqu'elle commenca a chanter, ce fut un veritable ravissement: sa voix se fit l'interprete revee de la divine musique de Gounod, tandis que sa personne et son coeur incarnaient physiquement et moralement l'heroine de Goethe"....
And so on, for Von Anspach had "seen to it," prodigally. And "Oh, well!" I thought; "if everybody else is so extravagantly pleased, what in heaven's name is the use of my being squeamish? Besides, she is only doing what I am doing, and getting all the pleasure out of life that is possible. She and I are very sensible people. At least, I suppose we are. I wonder, though? Meanwhile, I had better go and look for that preposterously beautiful Elena. And a fig for the provincial notions of Lichfield, that are poisoning me with their nonsense! and for the notions of Fairhaven, too, I suppose—"
Then Charteris came into the room. "John," said I, "this is a truly remarkable world, and only hypercriticism would venture to suggest that it is probably conducted by an inveterate humourist. So lend me that pocket-piece of yours, and we will permit chance to settle the entire matter. That is the one intelligent way of treating anything which is really serious. You probably believe I am Robert Etheridge Townsend, but as a matter of fact, I am Hercules in the allegory. So! the beautiful lady or America? Why, the eagle flutters uppermost, and from every mountain side let praises ring. Accordingly I am off."
"And you will cross half the world," said Charteris, "in the green dressing-gown, or in the coat which Byam borrowed for you this morning? I do not wish to seem inquisitive, you understand—"
"No, I believe I am through with borrowed coats—as with yours, for instance. But I am quite ready to go in my own dressing-gown if necessary—"
I wheeled at the door.
"By the way, I am done with you, John. I am fond of you, and all that, and I sincerely admire my chimney-pot coquette—of whom you haven't heard,—but, after all, there are real people yonder. And by God, even after two years of being pickled in alcohol and chasing after women that are quite used to being chased—well, even now I am one of those real people. So I am done with you and this perpetual making light of things—!"
"The Declaration of Independence," Charteris observed, "is undoubtedly the best thing in imaginative literature that we Americans have as yet accomplished; but I am sufficiently familiar with it, thank you, and I find, with age, that only the more untruthful platitudes are endurable. Oh, I predicted for you, at our first meeting, a life without achievements but of gusto! Now, it would appear, you plan to prance among an interminable saturnalia of the domestic virtues. So be it! but I warn you that the house of righteousness is but a wayside inn upon the road to being a representative citizen."
"You are talking nonsense," I rapped out—"and immoral nonsense."
"It is very strange," John Charteris complained, "how so many of us manage to reduce everything to a question of morality,—that is, to the alternative of being right or wrong. Now a man's personality, as somebody or other very properly observes, has many parts besides the moral area; and the intelligent, the artistic, even the religious part, need not necessarily have anything to do with ethics—"
"Ah, yes," said I, "so there is a train at noon—"
"And a virtuous man," continued Charteris, amicably, "is no more the perfect type of humanity than an intellectual man. In fact, the lowest and certainly the most disagreeable type of all troublesome people is that which combines an immaculate past with a limited understanding. The religious tenets of this class consist of an unshakable belief that the Bible was originally written in English, and contains nothing applicable to any of the week-days. And in consequence—"
I left him mid-course in speech. "Words, words!" said I; and it appeared to me for the moment that words were of astonishingly trivial import, however carefully selected, which was in me a wholesome, although fleet, apostacy of yesterday's creed. And I sent a cablegram to Bettie Hamlyn.
It was on the trip homeward I first met with Celia Reindan. I then considered her a silly little nuisance....
For I crossed the Atlantic in a contained fury of repentance for the wasted months. I had achieved nothing that was worthy of me, and presently I would be dead. Why, I might die within the five minutes! I might never see the lagging minute-hand of my little traveling clock pass that next numeral, say! The thought obsessed me, especially at night. Once, in a panic, I rose from my berth, and pushed the minute-hand forward a half-hour. "Now, I have tricked You!" I said, aloud; for nervously I was footing a pretty large bill. At twenty-three one has the funds wherewith to balance these accounts....
I wanted to live normally—to live as these persons thick about me, who seemed to grow up, and mate, and beget, and die, in the incurious fashion of oxen. I wanted to think only from hand to mouth, to think if possible not at all, and to be guided always in the conduct of my life by gross and obvious truisms, so that I must be judged at last but as one of the herd. "And what is accustomed—what holds of familiar usage—had come to seem the whole essence of wisdom, on all subjects"; for I wanted just the sense of companionship, irrevocable and eternal and commonly shared with every one of my kind. And yonder was Bettie Hamlyn.... "Oh, make a man of me, Bettie! just a common man!"
And Bettie might have done it, one considers, even then, for I was astir with a new impetus. Now, with a grin, the Supernal Aristophanes slipped the tiniest temptation in my way; to reach Fairhaven I was compelled to spend some three hours of an April afternoon in Lichfield, where upon Regis Avenue was to be met, in the afternoon, everyone worth meeting in Lichfield; and Stella drove there on fine afternoons, under the protection of a trim and preternaturally grave tiger; and the afternoon was irreproachable.
By the way she looked back over her shoulder, I knew that Stella had not recognized me. I stood with a yet lifted hat, irresolute.
"By Jove!" said I, in my soul, "then the Blagdens are in Lichfield! Why, of course! they always come here after Lent. And Bettie would not mind; to call on them would be only courteous; and besides, Bettie need not ever know. And moreover, I was always very fond of Peter."
So the next afternoon but four, Stella was making tea for me....
He Baits Upon the Journey
"You are quite by way of being a gentleman," had been Stella's greeting, that afternoon. Then, on a sudden, she rested both hands upon my breast. When she did that you tingled all over, in an agreeable fashion. "It was uncommonly decent of you to remember", said this impulsive young woman. "It was dear of you! And the flowers were lovely."
"They ought to have been immortelles, of course," I apologised, "but the florist was out of them. Yes, and of daffodils, too." I sat down, and sighed, pensively. "Dear, dear!" said I, "to think it was only two years ago I buried my dearest hopes and aspirations and—er—all that sort of thing."
"Nonsense!" said Stella, and selected a blue cup with dragons on it. "At any rate," she continued, "it is very disagreeable of you to come here and prate like a death's-head on my wedding anniversary."
"Gracious gravy!" said I, with a fine surprise, "so it is an anniversary with you, too?" She was absorbed in the sugar-bowl. "What a coincidence!" I suggested, pleasantly.
I paused. The fire crackled. I sighed.
"You are such poor company, nowadays, even after the advantages of foreign travel," Stella reflected. "You really ought to do something to enliven yourself." After a little, she brightened as to the eyes, and concentrated them upon the tea-making, and ventured a suggestion. "Why not fall in love?" said Stella.
"I am," I confided, "already in that deplorable condition." And I ventured on sigh number two.
"I don't mean—anything silly," said she, untruthfully. "Why," she continued, with a certain lack of relevance, "why not fall in love with somebody else?" Thereupon, I regret to say, her glance strayed toward the mirror. Oh, she was vain,—I grant you that. But I must protest she had a perfect right to be.
"Yes," said I, quite gravely, "that is the reason."
"Nonsense!" said Stella, and tossed her head. She now assumed her most matronly air, and did mysterious things with a perforated silver ball. I was given to understand I had offended, by a severe compression of her lips, which, however, was not as effective as it might have been. They twitched too mutinously.
Stella was all in pink, with golden fripperies sparkling in unanticipated localities. Presumably the gown was tucked and ruched and appliqued, and had been subjected to other processes past the comprehension of trousered humanity; it was certainly becoming.
I think there was an eighteenth-century flavour about it,—for it smacked, somehow, of a patched, mendacious, dainty womanhood, and its artfulness was of a gallant sort that scorned to deceive. It defied you, it allured you, it conquered you at a glance. It might have been the last cry from the court of an innocent Louis Quinze. It was, in fine, inimitable; and if only I were a milliner, I would describe for you that gown in some not unbefitting fashion. As it is, you may draft the world's modistes to dredge the dictionary, and they will fail, as ignominiously as I would do, in the attempt.
For, after all, its greatest charm was that it contained Stella, and converted Stella into a marquise—not such an one as was her sister, the Marquise d'Arlanges, but a marquise out of Watteau or of Fragonard, say. Stella in this gown seemed out of place save upon a high-backed stone bench, set in an allee of lime-trees, of course, and under a violet sky,—with a sleek abbe or two for company, and with beribboned gentlemen tinkling on their mandolins about her.
I had really no choice but to regard her as an agreeable anachronism the while she chatted with me, and mixed hot water and sugar and lemon into ostensible tea. She seemed so out of place,—and yet, somehow, I entertained no especial desire upon this sleety day to have her different, nor, certainly, otherwhere than in this pleasant, half-lit room, that consisted mostly of ambiguous vistas where a variety of brass bric-a-brac blinked in the firelight.
We had voted it cosier without lamps or candles, for this odorous twilight was far more companionable. Odorous, for there were a great number of pink roses about. I imagine that someone must have sent them—because there were not any daffodils obtainable, by reason of the late and nipping frost—in honour of Stella's second wedding anniversary.
"Peter says you talk to everybody that way," quoth she,—almost resentfully, and after a pause.
"Oh!" said I. For it was really no affair of Peter's. And so—
"Peter, everybody tells me, is getting fat," I announced, presently.
Stella witheringly glanced toward the region where my waist used to be. "He isn't!" said she, indignant.
"Quite like a pig, they assure me," I continued, with relish. She objected to people being well-built. "His obscene bloatedness appears to be an object of general comment."
Silence. I stirred my tea.
"Dear Peter!" said she. And then—but unless a woman of Stella's sort is able to exercise a proper control over her countenance, she has absolutely no right to discuss her husband with his bachelor friends. It is unkind; for it causes them to feel like social outcasts and lumbering brutes and Peeping Toms. If they know the husband well, it positively awes them; for, after all, it is a bit overwhelming, this sudden glimpse of the simplicity, and the credulity, and the merciful blindness of women in certain matters. Besides, a bachelor has no business to know such things; it merely makes him envious and uncomfortable.
Accordingly, "Stella," said I, with firmness, "if you flaunt your connubial felicity in my face like that, I shall go home."
She was deaf to my righteous rebuke. "Peter is in Washington this week," she went on, looking fondly into the fire. "I had planned a party to celebrate to-day, but he was compelled to go—business, you know. He is doing so well nowadays," she said, after a little, "that I am quite insufferably proud of him. And I intend for him to be a great lawyer—oh, much the greatest in America. And I won't ever be content till then."
"H'm!" said I. "H'm" seemed fairly non-committal.
"Sometimes," Stella declared, irrelevantly, "I almost wish I had been born a man."
"I wish you had been," quoth I, in gallant wise. "There are so few really attractive men!"
Stella looked up with a smile that was half sad.
"I'm just a little butterfly-woman, aren't I?" she asked.
"You are," I assented, with conviction, "a butterfly out of a queen's garden—a marvellous pink-and-gold butterfly, such as one sees only in dreams and—er—in a London pantomime. You are a decided ornament to the garden," I continued, handsomely, "and the roses bow down in admiration as you pass, and—ah—at least, the masculine ones do."
"Yes,—we butterflies don't love one another overmuch, do we? Ah, well, it scarcely matters! We were not meant to be taken seriously, you know,—only to play in the sunlight, and lend an air to the garden and—amuse the roses, of course. After all," Stella summed it up, "our duties are very simple; first, we are expected to pass through a certain number of cotillions and a certain number of various happenings in various tete-a-tetes; then to make a suitable match,—so as to enable the agreeable detrimentals to make love to us, with perfect safety—as you were doing just now, for instance. And after that, we develop into bulbous chaperones, and may aspire eventually to a kindly quarter of a column in the papers, and, quite possibly, the honour of having as many as two dinners put off on account of our death. Yes, it is very simple. But, in heaven's name," Stella demanded, with a sudden lift of speech, "how can any woman—for, after all, a woman is presumably a reasoning animal—be satisfied with such a life! Yet that is everything—everything!—this big world offers to us shallow-minded butterfly-women!"
Personally, I disapprove of such morbid and hysterical talk outside of a problem novel; there I heartily approve of it, on account of the considerable and harmless pleasure that is always to be derived from throwing the book into the fireplace. And, coming from Stella, this farrago doubly astounded me. She was talking grave nonsense now, whereas Nature had, beyond doubt, planned her to discuss only the lighter sort. So I decided it was quadruply absurd, little Stella talking in this fashion,—Stella, who, as all knew, was only meant to be petted and flattered and flirted with.
And therefore, "Stella," I admonished, "you have been reading something indigestible." I set down my teacup, and I clasped my hands. "Don't tell me," I pleaded, "that you want to vote!"
She remained grave. "The trouble is," said she, "that I am not really a butterfly, for all my tinsel wings. I am an ant."
"Oh," said I, shamelessly, "I hadn't heard that Lizzie had an item for the census man. I don't care for brand-new babies, though; they always look so disgracefully sun-burned."
The pun was atrocious and, quite properly, failed to win a smile or even a reproof from the morbid young person opposite. "My grandfather," said she in meditation, "began as a clerk in a country store. Oh of course, we have discovered, since he made his money and since Mother married a Musgrave, that his ancestors came over with William the Conqueror, and that he was descended from any number of potentates. But he lived. He was a rip at first—ah, yes, I'm glad of that as well, —and he became a religious fanatic because his oldest son died very horribly of lockjaw. And he browbeat people and founded banks, and made a spectacle of himself at every Methodist conference, and everybody was afraid of him and honoured him. And I fancy I am prouder of Old Tim Ingersoll than I am of any of the emperors and things that make such a fine show in the Musgrave family tree. For I am like him. And I want to leave something in the world that wasn't there before I came. I want my life to count, I want—why, a hundred years from now I do want to be something more than a name on a tombstone. I—oh, I daresay it is only my ridiculous egotism," she ended, with a shrug and Stella's usual quick smile,—a smile not always free from insolence, but always satisfactory, somehow.
"It's late hours," I warned her, with uplifted forefinger, "late hours and too much bridge and too many sweetmeats and too much bothering over silly New Women ideas. What is the sense of a woman's being useful," I demanded, conclusively, "when it is so much easier and so much more agreeable all around for her to be adorable?"
She pouted. "Yes," she assented, "that is my career—to be adorable. It is my one accomplishment," she declared, unblushingly,—yet not without substantiating evidence.
After a little, though, her gravity returned. "When I was a girl—oh, I dreamed of accomplishing all sorts of beautiful and impossible things! But, you see, there was really nothing I could do. Music, painting, writing—I tried them all, and the results were hopeless. Besides, Rob, the women who succeed in anything like that are always so queer looking. I couldn't be expected to give up my complexion for a career, you know, or to wear my hair like a golf-caddy's. At any rate, I couldn't make a success by myself. But there was one thing I could do, —I could make a success of Peter. And so," said Stella, calmly, "I did it."
I said nothing. It seemed expedient.
"You know, he was a little—"
"Yes," I assented, hastily. Peter had gone the pace, of course, but there was no need of raking that up. That was done with, long ago.
"Well, he isn't the least bit dissipated now. You know he isn't. That is the first big thing I have done." Stella checked it off with a small, spear-pointed, glinting finger-nail. "Then—oh, I have helped him in lots of ways. He is doing splendidly in consequence; and it is my part to see that the proper people are treated properly."
Stella reflected a moment. "There was the last appointment, for instance. I found that the awarding of it lay with that funny old Judge Willoughby, with the wart on his nose, and I asked him for it—not the wart, you understand,—and got it. We simply had him to dinner, and I was specially butterfly; I fluttered airily about, was as silly as I knew how to be, looked helpless and wore my best gown. He thought me a pretty little fool, and gave Peter the appointment. That is only an instance, but it shows how I help." Stella regarded me, uncertainly. "Why, but an authorman ought to understand!"
Of a sudden I understood a number of things—things that had puzzled. This was the meaning of Stella's queer dinner the night before, and the ensuing theatre-party, for instance; this was the explanation of those impossible men, vaguely heralded as "very influential in politics," and of the unaccountable women, painfully condensed in every lurid shade of satin, and so liberally adorned with gems as to make them almost valuable. Stella, incapable by nature of two consecutive ideas, was determined to manipulate the unseen wires, and to be, as she probably phrased it, the power behind the throne....
"Eh, it would be laughable," I thought, "were not her earnestness so pathetic! For here is Columbine mimicking Semiramis."
Yet it was true that Peter Blagden had made tremendous strides in his profession, of late. For a moment, I wondered—? Then I looked at this butterfly young person opposite, and I frowned. "I don't like it," I said, decisively. "It is a bit cold-blooded. It isn't worthy of you, Stella."
"It is my career," she flouted me, with shrugging shoulders. "It is the one career the world—our Lichfield world—has left me. And I am doing it for Peter."
The absurd look that I objected to—on principle, you understand— returned at this point in the conversation. I arose, resolutely, for I was really unable to put up with her nonsense.
"You are in love with your husband," I grumbled, "and I cannot countenance such eccentricities. These things are simply not done—"
She touched my hand. "Old crosspatch, and to think how near I came to marrying you."
"I do think of it—sometimes. So you had better stop pawing at me. It isn't safe."
I wish I could describe her smile. I wish I knew just what it was that Stella wanted me to say or do as we stood for a moment silent, in this pleasant, half-lit room where brass things blinked in the firelight.
"Old crosspatch!" she repeated....
"Stella," said I, with dignity, "I wish it distinctly understood that I am not a funny old judge with a wart on his nose."
Whereupon I went away.
He Participates in a Brave Jest
Stella drove on fine afternoons, under the protection of a trim and preternaturally grave tiger. The next afternoon, by a Lichfieldian transition, was irreproachable. I was to remember, afterward, wondering in a vague fashion, as the equipage passed, if the boy's lot was not rather enviable. There might well be less attractive methods of earning the daily bread and butter than to whirl through life behind Stella. One would rarely see her face, of course, but there would be such compensations as an unfailing sense of her presence, and the faint odour of her hair at times and, always, blown scraps of her laughter or shreds of her talk, and, almost always, the piping of the sweet voice that was stilled so rarely.
Perhaps the conscienceless tiger listened when she was "seeing the proper people were treated properly"? Yes, one would. Perhaps he ground his teeth? Well, one would, I suspected. And perhaps—?
There was a nod of recognition from Stella; and I lifted my hat as they bowled by toward the Reservoir. I went down Regis Avenue, mildly resentful that she had not offered me a lift.
A vagrant puff of wind was abroad in the Boulevard that afternoon. It paused for a while to amuse itself with a stray bit of paper. Presently the wind grew tired of this plaything and tossed between the eyes of a sorrel horse. Prince lurched and bolted; and Rex, always a vicious brute, followed his mate. One fancies the vagabond wind must have laughed over that which ensued.
After a moment it returned and lifted a bit of paper from the roadway, with a new respect, perhaps, and the two of them frolicked away over close-shaven turf. It was a merry game they played there in the spring sunlight. The paper fluttered a little, whirled over and over, and scuttled off through the grass; with a gust of mirth, the wind was after it, now gained upon it, now lost ground in eddying about a tree, and now made up the disadvantage in the open, and at last chuckled over its playmate pinned to the earth and flapping in sharp, indignant remonstrances. Then da capo.
It was a merry game that lasted till the angry sunset had flashed its final palpitant lance through the treetrunks farther down the roadway. There were gaping people in this place, and broken wheels and shafts, and a policeman with a smoking pistol, and two dead horses, and a horrible looking dead boy in yellow-topped boots. Somebody had charitably covered his face with a handkerchief; and men were lifting a limp, white heap from among the splintered rubbish.
Then wind and paper played half-heartedly in the twilight until the night had grown too chilly for further sport. There was no more murder to be done; and so the vagabond wind was puffed out into nothingness, and the bit of paper was left alone, and at about this season the big stars—the incurious stars—peeped out of heaven, one by one.
It was Stella's sister, the Marquise d'Arlanges, who sent for me that night. Across the street a hand-organ ground out its jingling tune as Lizzie's note told me what the playful wind had brought about. It was a despairing, hopeless and insistent air that shrilled and piped across the way. It seemed very appropriate.
The doctors feared—Ah, well, telegrams had failed to reach Peter in Washington. Peter Blagden was not in Washington, he had not been in Washington. He could not be found. And did I think—?
No, I thought none of the things that Stella's sister suggested. Of a sudden I knew. I stood silent for a little and heard that damned, clutching tune cough and choke and end; I heard the renewed babblement of children; and I heard the organ clatter down the street, and set up its faint jingling in the distance. And I knew with an unreasoning surety. I pitied Stella now ineffably, not for the maiming and crippling of her body, for the spoiling of that tender miracle, that white flower of flesh, but for the falling of her air-castle, the brave air-castle which to her meant everything. I guessed what had happened.
Later I found Peter Blagden, no matter where. It is not particularly to my credit that I knew where to look for him. Yet the French have a saying of infinite wisdom in their qui a bu boira. The old vice had gripped the man, irresistibly, and he had stolen off to gratify it in secret; and he had not been sober for a week. He was on the verge of collapse even when I told him—oh, with a deliberate cruelty, I grant you,—what had happened that afternoon.
Then, swiftly, his demolishment came; and I could not—could not for very shame—bring this shivering, weeping imbecile to the bedside of Stella, who was perhaps to die that night. Such was the news I brought to Stella's sister; through desolate streets already blanching in the dawn.
Stella was calling for Peter. We manufactured explanations.
Nice customs curtsey to death. I am standing at Stella's bedside, and the white-capped nurse has gone. There are dim lights about the room, and heavy carts lumber by in the dawn without. A petulant sparrow is cheeping somewhere.
"Tell me the truth," says Stella, pleadingly. Her face, showing over billows of bedclothes, is as pale as they. But beautiful, and exceedingly beautiful, is Stella's face, now that she is come to die.
It heartened me to lie to her. Peter had been retained in the great Western Railway case. He had been called to Denver, San Francisco and—I forget today just why or even whither. He had kept it as a surprise for her. He was hurrying back. He would arrive in two days. I showed her telegrams from Peter Blagden,—clumsy forgeries I had concocted in the last half-hour.
Oh, the story ran lamely, I grant you. But, vanity apart, I told it with conviction. Stella must and should die in content; that much at least I could purchase for her; and my thoughts were strangely nimble, there was a devilish fluency in my speech, and lie after lie was fitted somehow into an entity that surprised even me as it took plausible form. And I got my reward. Little by little, the doubt died from her eyes as I lied stubbornly in a drug-scented silence; a little by a little, her cheeks flushed brighter, and ever brighter, as I dilated on this wonderful success that had come to Peter Blagden, till at last her face was all aflame with happiness.
She had dreamed of this, half conscious of her folly; she had worked toward this consummation for months. But she had hardly dared to hope for absolute success; it almost worried her; and she could not be certain, even now, whether it was the soup or her blue silk that had influenced Allardyce most potently. Both had been planned to wheedle him, to gain this glorious chance for Peter Blagden....
"You—you are sure you are not lying?" said Stella, and smiled in speaking, for she believed me infinitely.
"Stella, before God, it is true!" I said, with fervour. "On my word of honour, it is as I tell you!" And my heart was sick within me as I thought of the stuttering brute, the painted female thing with tumbled hair, and the stench of liquor in the room—Ah, well, the God I called to witness strengthened me to smile back at Stella.
"I believe you," she said, simply. "I—I am glad. It is a big thing for Peter." Her eyes widened in wonder and pride, and she dreamed for just a moment of his future. But, upon a sudden, her face fell. "Dear, dear!" said Stella, petulantly; "I'd forgotten. I'll be dead by then."
"Stella! Stella!" I cried, and very hoarsely; "why—why, nonsense, child! The doctor thinks—he is quite sure, I mean—" I had a horrible desire to laugh. Heine was right; there is an Aristophanes in heaven.
"Ah, I know," she interrupted. "I am a little afraid to die," she went on, reflectively. "If one only knew—" Stella paused for a moment; then she smiled. "After all," she said, "it isn't as if I hadn't accomplished anything. I have made Peter. The ball is at his feet now; he has only to kick it. And I helped."
"Yes," said I. My voice was shaken, broken out of all control. "You have helped. Why, you have done everything, Stella! There is not a young man in America with his prospects. In five years, he will be one of our greatest lawyers,—everybody says so—everybody! And you have done it all, Stella—every bit of it! You have made a man of him, I tell you! Look at what he was!—and then look at what he is! And—and you talk of leaving him now! Why, it's preposterous! Peter needs you, I tell you—he needs you to cajole the proper people and keep him steady and—and—Why, you artful young woman, how could he possibly get on without you, do you think? Oh, how can any of us get on without you? You must get well, I tell you. In a month, you will be right as a trivet. You die! Why, nonsense!" I laughed. I feared I would never have done with laughter over the idea of Stella's dying.
"But I have done all I could. And so he doesn't need me now." Stella meditated for yet another moment. "I believe I shall always know when he does anything especially big. God would be sure to tell me, you see, because He understands how much it means to me. And I shall be proud—ah, yes, wherever I am, I shall be proud of Peter. You see, he didn't really care about being a success, for of course he knows that Uncle Larry will leave him a great deal of money one of these days. But I am such a vain little cat—so bent on making a noise in the world, —that, I think, he did it more to please my vanity than anything else. I nagged him, frightfully, you know," Stella confessed, "but he was always—oh, so dear about it, Rob! And he has never failed me—not even once, although I know at times it has been very hard for him." Stella sighed; and then laughed. "Yes," said she, "I think I am satisfied with my life altogether. Somehow, I am sure I shall be told about it when he is a power in the world—a power for good, as he will be,—and then I shall be very perky—somewhere. I ought to sing Nunc Dimittis, oughtn't I?" I was not unmoved; nor did it ever lie within my power to be unmoved when I thought of Stella and how gaily she went to meet her death....
"Good-bye," said she, in a tired voice.
"Good-bye, Stella," said I; and I kissed her.
"And I don't think you are a mess. And I don't hate you." She was smiling very strangely. "Yes, I remember that first time. And no matter what they said, I always cared heaps more about you, Rob, than I dared let you know. And if only you had been as dependable as Peter—But, you see, you weren't—"
"No, dear, you did the right thing—what was best for all of us—"
"Then don't mind so much. Oh, Bob, it hurts me to see you mind so much! You aren't—being dependable, like Peter, even now," she said, reproachfully....
Heine was right; there is an Aristophanes in heaven.
He Decides to Amuse Himself
I came to Fairhaven half-bedrugged with memories of Stella's funeral, —say, of how lightly she had lain, all white and gold, in the grotesque and horrid box, and of Peter's vacant red-rimmed eyes that seemed to wonder why this decorous company should have assembled about the deep and white-lined cavity at his feet and find no answer. Nor, for that matter, could I.
"But it was flagrant, flagrant!" my heart screeched in a grill of impotent wrath. "Eh, You gave me power to reason, so they say! and will You slay me, too, if I presume to use that power? I say, then, it was flagrant and tyrannical and absurd! 'Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first, Loving not, hating not, just choosing so!' O Setebos, it wasn't worthy of omnipotence. You know it wasn't!" In such a frame of mind I came again to Bettie Hamlyn.
It was very odd to see Bettie again. I had been sublimely confident, though, that we would pick up our intercourse precisely where we had left off; and this, as I now know, is something which can never happen to anybody. So I was vaguely irritated before we had finished shaking hands, and became so resolutely boyish and effusive in my delight at seeing her that anyone in the world but Bettie Hamlyn would have been quite touched. And my conversational gambit, I protest, was masterly, and would have made anybody else think, "Oh how candid is the egotism of this child!" and would have moved that person, metaphorically anyhow, to pat me upon the head.
But Bettie only smiled, a little sadly, and answered:
"Your book?—Why, dear me, did I forget to write you a nice little letter about how wonderful it was?"
"You wrote the letter all right. I think you copied it out of The Complete Letter Writer. There was not a bit of you in it."
"Well, that is why I dislike your book—because there was not a bit of you in it. Of course I am glad it was the big noise of the month, and also a little jealous of it, if you can understand that phase of the feminine mind. I doubt it, because you write about women as though they were pterodactyls or some other extinct animal, which you had never seen, but had read a lot about."
"Which attests, in any event, my morals to be above reproach. You should be pleased."
"To roll it into a pill, your book seems pretty much like any other book; and it has made me hold my own particular boy's picture more than once against my cheek and say, 'You didn't write books, did you, dear? —You did nicer things than write books'—and he did .... I hear many things of you...."
"Oh, well!" I brilliantly retorted, "you mustn't believe all you hear." And I felt that matters were going very badly indeed.
"Robin, do you not know that your mess of pottage must be eaten with you by the people who care for you?—and one of them dislikes pottage. Indeed, I would have liked the book, had anybody else written it. I almost like it as it is, in spots, and sometimes I even go to the great length of liking you,—because 'if only for old sake's sake, dear, you're the loveliest doll in the world.' There might be a better reason, if you could only make up your mind to dispense with pottage...."
The odd part of it, even to-day, is that Bettie was saying precisely what I had been thinking, and that to hear her say it made me just twice as petulant as I was already.
"Now, please don't preach," I said. "I've heard so much preaching lately—dear," I added, though I am afraid the word was rather obviously an afterthought.
"Oh, I forgot you stayed over for Stella Blagden's funeral. You were quite right. Stella was a dear child, and I was really sorry to hear of her death."
"Really!" It was the lightest possible additional flick upon the raw, but it served.
"Yes,—I, too, was rather sorry, Bettie, because I have loved Stella all my life. She was the first, you see, and, somehow, the others have been different. And—she disliked dying. I tell you, it is unfair, Bettie,—it is hideously unfair!"
"Robin—" she began.
"And why should you be living," I said, in half-conscious absurdity, "when she is dead? Why, look, Bettie! even that fly yonder is alive. Setebos accords an insect what He grudges Stella! Her dying is not even particularly important. The big news of the day is that the President has started his Pacific tour, and that the Harvard graduates object to his being given an honorary degree, and are sending out seven thousand protests to be signed. And you're alive, and I'm alive, and Peter Blagden is alive, and only Stella is dead. I suppose she is an angel by this. But I don't care for angels. I want just the silly little Stella that I loved,—the Stella that was the first and will always be the first with me. For I want her—just Stella—! Oh, it is an excellent jest; and I will cap it with another now. For the true joke is, I came to Fairhaven, across half the world, with an insane notion of asking you to marry me,—you who are 'really' sorry that Stella is dead!" And I laughed as pleasantly as one may do in anger.
But the girl, too, was angry. "Marry you!" she said. "Why, Robin, you were wonderful once; and now you are simply not a bad sort of fellow, who imagines himself to be the hit of the entire piece. And whether she's dead or not, she never had two grains of sense, but just enough to make a spectacle of you, even now."
"I regret that I should have sailed so far into the north of your opinion," said I. "Though, as I dare assert, you are quite probably in the right. So I'll be off to my husks again, Bettie." And I kissed her hand. "And that too is only for old sake's sake, dear," I said.
Then I returned to the railway station in time for the afternoon train. And I spoke with no one else in Fairhaven, except to grunt "Good evening, gentlemen," as I passed Clarriker's Emporium, where Colonel Snawley and Dr. Jeal were sitting in arm chairs, very much as I had left them there two years ago.
It was a long while afterward I discovered that "some damned good-natured friend," as Sir Fretful has immortally phrased it, had told Bettie Hamlyn of seeing me at the theatre in Lichfield, with Stella and her marvellous dinner-company. It was by an odd quirk the once Aurelia Minns, in Lichfield for the "summer's shopping," who had told Bettie. And the fact is that I had written Bettie upon the day of Stella's death and, without explicitly saying so, had certainly conveyed the impression I had reached Lichfield that very morning, and was simply stopping over for Stella's funeral. And, in addition, I cannot say that Bettie and Stella were particularly fond of each other.
As it was, I left Fairhaven the same day I reached it, and in some dissatisfaction with the universe. And I returned to Lichfield and presently reopened part of the old Townsend house .... "Robert and I," my mother had said, to Lichfield's delectation, "just live downstairs in the two lower stories, and ostracise the third floor...." And I was received by Lichfield society, if not with open arms at least with acquiescence. And Byam, an invaluable mulatto, the son of my cousin Dick Townsend and his housekeeper, made me quite comfortable.
Depend upon it, Lichfield knew a deal more concerning my escapades than I did. That I was "deplorably wild" was generally agreed, and a reasonable number of seductions, murders and arsons was, no doubt, accredited to me "on quite unimpeachable authority, my dear."
But I was a Townsend, and Lichfield had been case-hardened to Townsendian vagaries since Colonial days; and, besides, I had written a book which had been talked about; and, as an afterthought, I was reputed not to be an absolute pauper, if only because my father had taken the precaution, customary with the Townsends, to marry a woman with enough money to gild the bonds of matrimony. For Lichfield, luckily, was not aware how near my pleasure-loving parents had come, between them, to spending the last cent of this once ample fortune.
And, in fine, "Well, really now—?" said Lichfield. Then there was a tentative invitation or two, and I cut the knot by accepting all of them, and talking to every woman as though she were the solitary specimen of feminity extant. It was presently agreed that gossip often embroidered the actual occurrence and that wild oats were, after all, a not unheard-of phenomenon, and that though genius very often, in a phrase, forgot to comb its hair, these tonsorial deficiencies were by the broadminded not appraised too strictly.
I did not greatly care what Lichfield said one way or the other. I was too deeply engrossed: first, in correcting the final proofs of Afield, my second book, which appeared that spring and was built around—there is no harm in saying now,—my relations with Gillian Hardress; secondly, in the remunerative and uninteresting task of writing for Woman's Weekly five "wholesome love-stories with a dash of humor," in which She either fell into His arms "with a contented sigh" or else "their lips met" somewhere toward the ending of the seventh page; and, thirdly, in diverting myself with Celia Reindan....
That, though, is a business I shall not detail, because it was one of the very vulgarest sort. It was the logical outgrowth of my admiration for her yellow hair,—she did have extraordinary hair, confound her! —and of a few moonlit nights. It was simply the result of our common vanity and of her book-fed sentimentality and, eventually, of her unbridled temper; and in nature the compound was an unsavoury mess which thoroughly delighted Lichfield. Lichfield will be only too glad, even nowadays, to discourse to you of how I got wedged in that infernal transom, and of how Celia alarmed everybody within two blocks of her bedroom by her wild yells.
I had meanwhile decided, first, to write another and a better book than The Apostates or Afield had ever pretended to be; and afterward to marry Rosalind Jemmett, whom I found, in my too-hackneyed but habitual phrase, "adorable." For this Rosalind was an eminently "sensible match," and as such, I considered, quite appropriate for a Townsend.
The main thing though, to me, was to write the book of which I had already the central idea,—very vague, as yet, but of an unquestionable magnificence. Development of it, on an at all commensurate scale, necessitated many inconveniences, and among them, the finding of someone who would assist me in imbuing the love-scenes—of which there must unfortunately be a great many—with reality; and for the tale's milieu I again pitched upon the Green Chalybeate,—where, as you may remember, I first met with Stella.
So I said a not unpromising farewell to Rosalind Jemmett, who was going into Canada for the summer. She was quite frankly grieved by the absolute necessity of my taking a rigorous course of the Chalybeate waters, but agreed with me that one's health is not to be trifled with. And of course she would write if I really wanted her to, though she couldn't imagine why—But I explained why, with not a little detail. And she told me, truthfully, that I was talking like an idiot; and was not, I thought, irrevocably disgusted by my idiocy. So that, all in all, I was not discontented when I left her.
Then I ordered Byam to pack and, by various unveracious representations, induced my Uncle George Bulmer—as a sort of visible and outward sign that I forgave him for declining to lend me another penny—to accompany me to the Green Chalybeate. Besides, I was fond of the old scoundrel....
When I began to scribble these haphazard memories I had designed to be very droll concerning the "provincialism" of Lichfield; for, as every inhabitant of it will tell you, it is "quite hopelessly provincial," —and this is odd, seeing that, as investigation will assure you, the city is exclusively inhabited by self-confessed cosmopolitans. I had meant to depict Fairhaven, too, in the broad style of Cranford, say; and to be so absolutely side-splitting when I touched upon the Green Chalybeate as positively to endanger the existence of any apoplectic reader, who presumed to peruse the chapter which dealt with this resort.
But, upon reflection, I am too familiar with these places to attempt to treat them humorously. The persons who frequent their byways are too much like the persons who frequent the byways of any other place, I find, at bottom. For to write convincingly of the persons peculiar to any locality it is necessary either to have thoroughly misunderstood them, or else perseveringly to have been absent from daily intercourse with them until age has hardened the brain-cells, and you have forgotten what they are really like. Then, alone, you may write the necessary character studies which will be sufficiently abundant in human interest.
For, at bottom, any one of us is tediously like any other. Comprehension is the grave of sympathy; scratch deeply enough and you will find not any livelily-coloured Tartarism, but just a mediocre and thoroughly uninteresting human being. So I may not ever be so droll as I had meant to be; and if you wish to chuckle over the grotesque places I have lived in, you must apply to persons who have spent two weeks there, and no more.
For the rest, Lichfield, and Fairhaven also, got at and into me when I was too young to defend myself. Therefore Lichfield and Fairhaven cannot ever, really, seem to me grotesque. To the contrary, it is the other places which must always appear to me a little queer when judged by the standards of Fairhaven and Lichfield.
He Seeks for Copy
I had aforetime ordered Mr. George Bulmer to read The Apostates, and, as the author of this volume explained, from motives that were purely well-meaning. To-night I was superintending the process.
"For the scene of the book is the Green Chalybeate," said I; "and it may be my masterly rhetoric will so far awaken your benighted soul, Uncle George, as to enable you to perceive what the more immediate scenery is really like. Why, think of it! what if you should presently fall so deeply in love with the adjacent mountains as to consent to overlook the deficiencies of the more adjacent cafe! Try now, nunky! try hard to think that the right verb is really more important than the right vermouth! and you have no idea what good it may do you."
Mr. Bulmer read on, with a bewildered face, while I gently stirred the contents of my tall and delectably odored glass. It was "frosted" to a nicety. We were drinking "Mamie Taylors" that summer, you may remember; and I had just brought up a pitcherful from the bar.
"Oh, I say, you know!" observed Uncle George, as he finished the sixth chapter, and flung down the book.
"Rot, utter rot," I assented pleasantly; "puerile and futile trifling with fragments of the seventh commandment, as your sturdy common-sense instantly detected. In fact," I added, hopefully, "I think that chapter is trivial enough to send the book into a tenth edition. In Afield, you know, I tried a different tack. Actuated by the noblest sentiments, the heroine mixes prussic acid with her father's whiskey and water; and 'Old-Fashioned' and 'Fair Play' have been obliging enough to write to the newspapers about this harrowing instance of the deplorably low moral standards of to-day. Uncle George, do you think that a real lady is ever justified in obliterating a paternal relative? You ought to meditate upon that problem, for it is really a public question nowadays. Oh, and there was a quite lovely clipping last week I forgot to show you—all about Electra, as contrasted with Jonas Chuzzlewit, and my fine impersonal attitude, and the survival of the fittest, and so on."
But Uncle George refused to be comforted. "Look here, Bob!" said he, pathetically, "why don't you brace up and write something—well! we'll put it, something of the sort you can do. For you can, you know."
"Ah, but is not a judicious nastiness the market-price of a second edition before publication?" I softly queried. "I had no money. I was ashamed to beg, and I was too well brought up to steal anything adroitly enough not to be caught. And so, in view of my own uncle's deafness to the prayers of an impecunious orphan, I have descended to this that I might furnish butter for my daily bread." I refilled my glass and held the sparkling drink for a moment against the light. "This time next year," said I, as dreamily, "I shall be able to afford cake; for I shall have written As the Coming of Dawn."
Mr. Bulmer sniffed, and likewise refilled his glass. "You catch me lending you any money for your—brief Biblical words!" he said.
"For the reign of subtle immorality," I sighed, "is well-nigh over. Already the augurs of the pen begin to wink as they fable of a race of men who are evilly scintillant in talk and gracefully erotic. We know that this, alas, cannot be, and that in real life our peccadilloes dwindle into dreary vistas of divorce cases and the police-court, and that crime has lost its splendour. We sin very carelessly—sordidly, at times,—and artistic wickedness is rare. It is a pity; life was once a scarlet volume scattered with misty-coated demons; it is now a yellow journal, wherein our vices are the hackneyed formulas of journalists, and our virtues are the not infrequent misprints. Yes, it is a pity!"
"Dearest Robert!" remonstrated Mr. Bulmer, "you are sadly passe: that pose is of the Beardsley period and went out many magazines ago."
"The point is well taken," I admitted, "for our life of to-day is already reflected—faintly, I grant you,—in the best-selling books. We have passed through the period of a slavish admiration for wickedness and wide margins; our quondam decadents now snigger in a parody of primeval innocence, and many things are forgiven the latter-day poet if his botany be irreproachable. Indeed, it is quite time; for we have tossed over the contents of every closet in the menage a trois. And I—moi, qui vous parle,—I am wearied of hansom-cabs and the flaring lights of great cities, even as so alluringly depicted in Afield; and henceforth I shall demonstrate the beauty of pastoral innocence."
"Saul among the prophets," Uncle George suggested, helpfully.
"Quite so," I assented, "and my first prophecy will be As the Coming of Dawn."
Mr. Bulmer tapped his forehead significantly. "Mad, quite mad!" said he, in parenthesis.
"I shall be idyllic," I continued, sweetly; "I shall write of the ineffable glory of first love. I shall babble of green fields and the keen odours of spring and the shamefaced countenances of lovers, met after last night's kissing. It will be the story of love that stirs blindly in the hearts of maids and youths, and does not know that it is love,—the love which manhood has half forgotten and that youth has not the skill to write of. But I, at twenty-four, shall write its story as it has never been written; and I shall make a great book of it, that will go into thousands and thousands of editions. Yes, before heaven, I will!"
I brought my fist down, emphatically, on the table.
"H'm!" said Mr. Bulmer, dubiously; "going back to renew associations with your first love? I have tried it, and I generally find her grandchildren terribly in the way."
"It is imperative," said I,—"yes, imperative for the scope of my book, that I should view life through youthful and unsophisticated eyes. I discovered that, upon the whole, Miss Jemmett is too obviously an urban product to serve my purpose. And I can't find any one who will."
Uncle George whistled softly. "'Honourable young gentleman,'" he murmured, as to himself, "'desires to meet attractive and innocent young lady. Object: to learn how to be idyllic in three-hundred pages.'"
There was no commentary upon his text.
"I say," queried Mr. Bulmer, "do you think this sort of thing is fair to the girl? Isn't it a little cold-blooded?"
"Respected nunky, you are at times very terribly the man in the street! Anyhow, I leave the Green Chalybeate to-morrow in search of As the Coming of Dawn."
"Look here," said Mr. Bulmer, rising, "if you start on a tour of the country, looking for assorted dawns and idylls, it will end in my abducting you from some rustic institution for the insane. You take a liver-pill and go to bed! I don't promise anything, mind, but perhaps about the first I can manage a little cheque if only you will make oath on a few Bibles not to tank up on it in Lichfield. The transoms there," he added unkindlily, "are not built for those full rich figures."
Next morning, I notified the desk-clerk, and, quite casually, both the newspaper correspondents, that the Green Chalybeate was about to be bereft of the presence of a distinguished novelist. Then, as my train did not leave till night, I resolved to be bored on horseback, rather than on the golf-links, and had Guendolen summoned, from the stable, for a final investigation of the country roads thereabouts.
Guendolen this afternoon elected to follow a new route; and knowing by experience that any questioning of this decision could but result in undignified defeat, I assented. Thus it came about that we circled parallel to the boardwalk, which leads uphill to the deserted Royal Hotel, and passed its rows of broken windows; and went downhill again, always at Guendolen's election; and thus came to the creek, which babbled across the roadway and was overhung with thick foliage that lisped and whispered cheerfully in the placid light of the declining sun. It was there that the germ of As the Coming of Dawn was found.
For I had fallen into a reverie over the deplorable obstinacy of my new heroine, who declined, for all my labours, to be unsophisticated; and taking advantage of this, Guendolen had twitched the reins from my hand and proceeded to satisfy her thirst in a manner that was rather too noisy to be quite good form. I sat in patience, idly observing the sparkling reflection of the sunlight on the water. I was elaborating a comparison between my obstinate heroine and Guendolen. Then Guendolen snorted, as something rustled through the underbrush, and turning, I perceived a Vision.
The Vision was in white, with a profusion of open-work. There were blue ribbons connected with it. There were also black eyes, of the almond-shaped, heavy-lidded variety that I had thought existed only in Lely's pictures, and great coils of brown hair which was gold where the chequered sunlight fell upon it, and two lips that were inexpressibly red. I was filled with pity for my tired horse, and a resolve that for this once her thirst should be quenched.
Thereupon, I lifted my cap hastily; and Guendolen scrambled to the other bank, and spluttered, and had carried me well past the Iron Spring, before I announced to the evening air that I was a fool, and that Guendolen was describable by various quite picturesque and derogatory epithets. And I smiled.
"Now, Robert Etheridge Townsend, you writer of books, here is a subject made to your hand!" And then:
"Only 'twixt the light and shade Floating memories of my maid Make me pray for Guendolen."
After this we retraced our steps. I was peering anxiously about the roadway.
"Pardon me," said I, subsequently; "but have you seen anything of a watch—a small gold one, set with pearls?"
"Heavens!" said the Vision, sympathetically, "what a pity! Are you sure it fell here?"
"I don't seem to have it about me," I answered, with cryptic, but entire veracity. I searched about my pockets, with a puckered brow. "And as we stopped here—"
I looked inquiringly into the water.
"From this side," observed the Vision, impersonally, "there is less glare from the brook."
Having tied Guendolen to a swinging limb, I sat down contentedly in these woods. The Vision moved a little, lest I be crowded.
"It might be further up the road," she suggested.
"Oh, I must have left it at the hotel," I observed.
"You might look—" said she, peering into the water.
"Forever!" I assented.
The Vision flushed, "I didn't mean—" she began.
"But I did," quoth I,—"and every word of it."
"Why, in that case," said she, and rose to her feet, "I'd better—" A frown wrinkled her brow; then a deep, curved dimple performed a similar office for her cheek. "I wonder—" said she.
"Why, you would be a bold-faced jig," said I, composedly; "but, after all there is nobody about. And, besides,—for I suspect you of being one of the three dilapidated persons in veils who came last night,—we are going to be introduced right after supper, anyway."
The Vision sat down. "You mentioned your sanatorium?" quoth she.
"The Asylum of Love," said I; "discharged—under a false impression, —as cured, and sent to paradise.
"Oh!" said I, defiant, "but it is!"
She looked about her. "The woods are rather beautiful," she conceded, softly.
"They form a quite appropriate background," said I. "It is a veritable Eden, before the coming of the snake."
"Before?" she queried, dubiously.
"Undoubtedly," said I, and felt my ribs, in meditative wise. "Ah, but I thought I missed something! We participate in a historic moment. This is in Eden immediately after the creation of—Well, but of course you are acquainted with that famous bull about Eve's being the fairest of her daughters?"
"It is quite time," said she, judicially, "for me to go back to the hotel, before—since we are speaking of animals,—your presence here is noticed by one of the squirrels."
"It is not good," I pleaded, "for man to be alone."
"I have heard," said she, "that—almost any one can cite scripture to his purpose."
I thrust out a foot for inspection. "No suggestion of a hoof," said I; "and not the slightest odour of brimstone, as you will kindly note; and my inoffensive name is Robert Townsend."
"Of course," she submitted, "I could never think of making your acquaintance in this irregular fashion; and, therefore, of course, I could not think of telling you that my name is Marian Winwood."
"Of course not," I agreed; "it would be highly improper."
"—And it is more than time for me to go to supper," she concluded again, with a lacuna, as it seemed to me, in the deduction.
"Look here!" I remonstrated; "it isn't anywhere near six yet." I exhibited my watch to support this statement.
"Oh!" she observed, with wide, indignant eyes.
"I—I mean—" I stammered.
She rose to her feet.
"—I will explain how I happened to be carrying two watches—"
"I do not care to listen to any explanations. Why should I?"
"—upon," I firmly said, "the third piazza of the hotel. And this very evening."
"You will not." And this was said even more firmly. "And I hope you will have the kindness to keep away from these woods; for I shall probably always walk here in the afternoon." Then, with an indignant toss of the head, the Vision disappeared.
I whistled. Subsequently I galloped back to the hotel.
"See here!" said I, to the desk-clerk; "how long does this place keep open?"
"Season closes latter part of September, sir."
I told him I would need my rooms till then.
He Provides Copy
So it was Uncle George Bulmer who presently left the Green Chalybeate, to pursue Mrs. Chaytor with his lawless arts. I stayed out the season.
Now I cannot conscientiously recommend the Green Chalybeate against your next vacation. Once very long ago, it was frequented equally for the sake of gaiety and of health. In the summer that was Marian's the resort was a beautiful and tumble-down place where invalids congregated for the sake of the nauseous waters,—which infallibly demolish a solid column of strange maladies I never read quite through, although it bordered every page of the writing-paper you got there from the desk-clerk,—and a scanty leaven of persons who came thither, apparently, in order to spend a week or two in lamenting "how very dull the season is this year, and how abominable the fare is."
But for one I praise the place, and I believe that Marian Winwood also bears it no ill-will. For we two were very happy there. We took part in the "subscription euchres" whenever we could not in time devise an excuse which would pass muster with the haggard "entertainer." We danced conscientiously beneath the pink and green icing of the ball-room's ceiling, with all three of the band playing Hearts and Flowers; and with a dozen "chaperones"—whom I always suspected of taking in washing during the winter months,—lined up as closely as was possible to the door, as if in preparation for the hotel's catching fire any moment, to give us pessimistic observal. And having thus discharged our duty to society at large, we enjoyed ourselves tremendously.
For instance, we would talk over the book I was going to write in the autumn. That was the main thing. Then one could golf, or drive, or—I blush to write it even now—croquet. Croquet, though, is a much maligned game, as you will immediately discover if you ever play it on the rambling lawn of the Chalybeate, about six in the afternoon, say, when the grass is greener than it is by ordinary, and the shadows are long, and the sun is well beneath the tree-tops of the Iron Bank, and your opponent makes a face at you occasionally, and on each side the old, one-storied cottages are builded of unusually red bricks and are quite ineffably asleep.
Or again there is always the creek to divert yourself in. Once I caught five crawfishes there, while Marian waited on the bank; and afterward we found an old tomato-can and boiled them in it, and they came out a really gorgeous crimson. This was the afternoon that we were Spanish Inquisitors.... Oh, believe me, you can have quite a good time at the Chalybeate, if you set about it in the proper way.
Only it is true that sometimes, when it rained, say, with that hopeless insistency which, I protest, is unknown anywhere else in the world; and when Marian was not immediately accessible, and cigarettes were not quite satisfactory, because the entire universe was so sodden that matches had to be judiciously coaxed before they would strike; and when if you happened to be writing a fervid letter to Rosalind Jemmett, let us say, the ink would not dry for ever so long:—why, it is true that in these circumstances you would feel a shade too like the wicked Lord So-and-So of a melodrama to be comfortable.
Yet even in these circumstances, reason told me that the Book was the main thing, that the girl would be thoroughly over the affair by November at latest, and that at the cost of a few inconsequent tears, she would have meanwhile immeasurably obliged posterity. And I knew that no man may ever write in perdurable fashion save by ruthlessly converting his own life into "copy," since of other persons' lives he can, at most, reproduce but the blurred and misinterpreted by-ends, by reason of almost any author's deplorable lack of omniscience. Yes, the Book was the main thing; and yet the girl—knowingly to dip my pen into her heart as into an inkstand was not, at best, chivalric....
"But the Book!" said I. "Why, I must be quite idiotically in love to think of letting that Book perish!" And I viciously added: "Confound the pretty simpleton!"...
So the book was builded, after all, a little by a little. Hardly an evening came when after leaving Marian I had not at least one excellent and pregnant jotting to record in my note-book. Now it would be just an odd turn of language, or a description of some gesture she had made, or of a gown she had worn that day; and now a simile or some other rather good figure of speech which had popped into my mind when I was making love to her.
Nor had I any difficulty in preserving nearly all she said to me, for Marian was never a chatterbox; yet her responses had, somehow, that long-sought tang it wasn't in me to invent for any imaginary young woman who must be, for the sake of my new novel, quite heels over head in love.
And I began to see that Bettie was right, as usual. I had portrayed Gillian Hardress pretty well in Afield; but by and large, I had always written about women as though they were "pterodactyls or some other extinct animal, which you had never seen, but had read a lot about."
And now, in looking over my notes, I knew, and my heart glowed to know, that I was not about to repeat the error.
So the Book was builded, after all, a little by a little. And a little by a little the summer wore on; and in the lobby of the Main Hotel was hung the beautiful Spirit of the Falls poster of the Buffalo Exposition; and we talked of Oom Paul Krueger, and Shamrock II, and the Nicaragua Canal, and lanky Bob Fitzsimmons, and the Boxer outrages; and we read To Have and To Hold and The Cardinal's Snuff Box, and thought it droll that the King of England was not going to call himself King Albert, after all.
And then came the news of how the President had been shot, "with a poisoned bullet," and a week of contradictory bulletins from the Milburn House in Buffalo. And there were panicky surmises raised everywhere as to "what these anarchists may do next," so that Maggio was mobbed in Columbus, and Emma Goldman in Chicago; and Colonel Roosevelt was found, after days of search, on Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks, and was told in the heart of a forest that to-morrow he would be at the head of a nation. And the country's guidance was entrusted to a mere lad of forty-three, with general uneasiness as to what might come of it; and the dramatic tale of Colonel Roosevelt's taking of the oath of office was in that morning's paper; and Marian and I were about to part.
"It will be dreadful," sighed she; "for we have to stay a whole week longer, and I shall come here every afternoon. And there will be only ghosts in the woods, and I shall be very lonely."
"Dear," said I, "is it not something to have been happy? It has been such a wonderful summer; and come what may, nothing can rob us now of its least golden moment. And it is only for a little."
"You will come back?" said she, half-doubtingly.
"Yes," I said. "You wonderful, elfin creature, I shall undoubtedly come back—to your real home, and claim you there. Only I don't believe you do live in Aberlin,—you probably live in some great, gnarled oak hereabouts; and at night its bark uncloses to set you free, and you and your sisters dance out the satyrs' hearts in the moonlight. Oh, I know, Marian! I simply know you are a dryad,—a wonderful, laughing, clear-eyed dryad strayed out of the golden age."
"What a boy it is!" she said. "No, I am only a really and truly girl, dear,—a rather frightened girl, with very little disposition to laughter, just now. For you are going away—Oh, my dear, you have meant so much to me! The world is so different since you have come, and I am so happy and so miserable that—that I am afraid." An infinitesimal handkerchief went upward to two great, sparkling eyes, and dabbed at them.
"Dear!" said I. And this remark appeared to meet the requirements of the situation.
There was a silence now. We sat in the same spot where I had first encountered Marian Winwood. Only this was an autumnal forest that glowed with many gem-like hues about us; and already the damp odour of decaying leaves was heavy in the air. It was like the Tosti thing translated out of marine terms into a woodland analogue. The summer was ended; but As the Coming of Dawn was practically complete.
It was not the book that I had planned, but a far greater one which was scarcely mine. There was no word written as yet. But for two months I had viewed life through Marian Winwood's eyes; day by day, my half-formed, tentative ideas had been laid before her with elaborate fortuitousness, to be approved, or altered, or rejected, just as she decreed; until at last they had been welded into a perfect whole that was a Book, bit by bit, we had planned it, I and she; and, as I dreamed of it as it would be in print, my brain was fired with exultation, and I defied my doubt and I swore that the Book, for which I had pawned a certain portion of my self-respect, was worth—and triply worth—the price which had been paid.... This was in Marian's absence.
"Dear!" said she....
Her eyes were filled with a tender and unutterable confidence that thrilled me like physical cold. "Marian," said I, simply, "I shall never come back."
The eyes widened a trifle, but she did not seem to comprehend.
"Have you not wondered," said I, "that I have never kissed you, except as if you were a very holy relic or a cousin or something of that sort?"
"Yes," she answered. Her voice was quite emotionless.
"And yet—yet—" I sprang to my feet. "Dear God, how I have longed! Yesterday, only yesterday, as I read to you from the verses I had made to other women, those women that are colourless shadows by the side of your vivid beauty,—and you listened wonderingly and said the proper things and then lapsed into dainty boredom,—how I longed to take you in my arms, and to quicken your calm blood a little with another sort of kissing. You knew—you must have known! Last night, for instance—"
"Last night," she said, very simply, "I thought—And I hoped you would."
"What a confession for a nicely brought up girl! Well! I didn't. And afterward, all night, I tossed in sick, fevered dreams of you. I am mad for love of you. And so, once in a while I kiss your hand. Dear God, your hand!" My voice quavered, effectively.
"Yes," said she; "still, I remember—"
"I have struggled; and I have conquered this madness,—for a madness it is. We can laugh together and be excellent friends; and we can never, never be anything more. Well! we have laughed, have we not, dear, a whole summer through? Now comes the ending. Ah, I have seen you puzzling over my meaning before this. You never understood me thoroughly; but it is always safe to laugh."
She smiled; and I remember now it was rather as Mona Lisa smiles.
"For we can laugh together,—that is all. We are not mates. You were born to be the wife of a strong man and the mother of his sturdy children; and you and your sort will inherit the earth and make the laws for us weaklings who dream and scribble and paint. We are not mates. But you have been very kind to me, Marian dear. So I thank you and say good-bye; and I pray that I may never see you after to-day."
There was a sub-tang of veracity in my deprecation of an unasked-for artistic temperament; the thing is very often a nuisance, and was just then a barrier which I perceived plainly; and with equal plainness I perceived the pettier motives that now caused me to point it out as a barrier to Marian. My lips curled half in mockery of myself, as I framed the bitter smile I felt the situation demanded; but I was fired with the part I was playing; and half-belief had crept into my mind that Marian Winwood was created, chiefly, for the purpose which she had already served.
I regarded her, in fine, as through the eyes of future readers of my biography. She would represent an episode in my life, as others do in that of Byron or of Goethe. I pitied her sincerely; and, under all, what moralists would call my lower nature, held in leash for two months past, chuckled, and grinned, and leaped, at the thought of a holiday.
She rose to her feet. "Good-bye," said she.
"You—you understand, dear?" I queried, tenderly.
"Yes," she answered; "I understand—not what you have just told me, for in that, of course, you have lied. That Jemmett girl and her money is at the bottom of it all, of course. You didn't want to lose her, and still you wanted to play with me. So you were pulled two ways, poor dear."
"Oh, well, if that is what you think of me—!"
"You see, you are not an uncommon type,—a type not strong enough to live life healthily, just strong enough to dabble in life, to trifle with emotions, to experiment with other people's lives. Indeed, I am not angry, dear; I am only—sorry; for you have played with me very nicely indeed, and very boyishly, and the summer has been very happy."
I returned to Lichfield and wrote As the Coming of Dawn.
I spent six months in this. My work at first was mere copying of the book that already existed in my brain; but when it was transcribed therefrom, I wrote and rewrote, shifted and polished and adorned until it seemed I would never have done; and indeed I was not anxious to have done with any labour so delightful.
Particularly did I rejoice in the character for which Marian Winwood had posed. Last summer's note-book here came into play; and now, for once, my heroine was in no need of either shoving or prompting. She did things of her own accord, and I was merely her scribe...
I would vain-gloriously protest, just to myself, that the love scenes in this story were the most exquisite and, with all that, the most genuine love scenes I knew of anywhere. "By God!" I would occasionally say with Thackeray; "I am a genius!"
Besides, the story of the book, I knew, was novel and astutely wrought; its progress caught at once and teased your interest always, so that having begun it, most people would read to the end, if only to discover "how it all came out." I knew the book, in fine, could hardly fail to please and interest a number of people by reason of its plot alone.
I ought to have been content with this. But I had somehow contracted an insane notion that a novel is the more enjoyable when it is adroitly written. In point of fact, of course, no man who writes with care is ever read with pleasure; you may toil through a page or two perhaps, but presently you are noting how precisely every word is fitted to the thought, and later you are noting nothing else. You are insensibly beguiled into a fidgety-footed analysis of every clause, which fatigues in the outcome, and by the tenth page you are yawning.
But I did not comprehend this then. And so I fashioned my apt phrases, and weighed my synonyms, and echoed this or that vowel very skilfully, I thought, and alliterated my consonants with discretion. In fine, I did not overlook the most meticulous device of the stylist; and I enjoyed it. It was a sort of game; and they taught me at least, those six delightful months, that a man writes admirable prose not at all for the sake of having it read, but for the more sensible reason that he enjoys playing solitaire.
I led a hermit's life that winter; and I enjoyed that too. Night, after all, is the one time for writing, particularly when you are inane enough to hanker after perfected speech, and so misguided as to be the slave of the "right word." You sit alone in a bright, comfortable room; the clock ticks companionably; there is no other sound in the world except the constant scratching of your pen, and the occasional far-off puffing of a freight-train coming into Lichfield; there is snow outside, but before your eyes someone, that is not you exactly, arranges and redrills the scrawls which will bring back the sweet and languid summer and remarshal all its pleasant trivialities for anyone that chooses to read through the printed page, although he read two centuries hence, in Nova Zembla....
Then you dip into an Unabridged, and change every word that has been written, for a better one, and do it leisurely, rolling in the mouth, as it were, the flavour of every possible synonym, before decision. Then you reread, with a corrective pen in hand the while, and you venture upon the whole to agree with Merimee that it is preferable to write one's own books, since those of others are not, after all, particularly worth reading in comparison.
And by this time the windows are pale blue, like the blue of a dying flame, and you peep out and see the sparrows moving like rather poorly made mechanical toys about the middle of the deserted street, where there is neither light nor shade. The colour of everything is perfectly discernible, but there is no lustre in the world as yet, though yonder the bloat sun is already visible in the blue and red east, which is like a cosmic bruise; and upon a sudden you find it just possible to stay awake long enough to get safely into bed....
Thus I dandled the child of my brain for a long while, and arrayed it in beautiful and curious garments, adorning each beloved notion with far-sought words that had a taste in the mouth, and would one day lend an aroma to the printed page; and I rejoiced shamelessly in that which I had done. Then it befell that I went forth and sought the luxury of a Turkish bath, and in the morning, after a rub-down and an ammonia cocktail, awoke to the fact that the world had been going on much as usual, that winter.
Young Colonel Roosevelt seemed not to have wrecked civilization, after all, according to the morning Courier-Herald, despite that Democratic paper's colorful prophecies last autumn in the vein of Jeremiah. To the contrary, Major-General McArthur was testifying before the Senate as to the abysmal unfitness of the Filipinos for self-government; the Women's Clubs were holding a convention in Los Angeles; there had been terrible hailstorms this year to induce the annual ruining of the peach-crop, and the submarine Fulton had exploded; the California Limited had been derailed in Iowa, and in Memphis there was some sort of celebration in honor of Admiral Schley; and the Boer War seemed over; and Mr. Havemeyer also was before the Senate, to whom he was making it clear that his companies were in no wise responsible for sugar having reached the unprecedentedly high price of four and a half cents a pound.