THE CORDS OF VANITY
A Comedy of Shirking
Revised and Expanded Edition
by JAMES BRANCH CABELL
with INTRODUCTION by WILSON FOLLETT
GABRIELLE BROOKE MONCURE
Plus sapit vulgus, quia tantum, quantum opus est, sapit.
by Wilson Follett
Mr. Cabell, in making ready this second or intended edition of THE CORDS OF VANITY, performs an act of reclamation which is at the same time an act of fresh creation.
For the purely reclamatory aspect of what he has done, his reward (so far as that can consist in anything save the doing) must come from insignificantly few directions; so few indeed that he, with a wrily humorous exaggeration, affects to believe them singular. The author of this novel has been pleased to describe the author of this introduction as "the only known purchaser of the book" and, further, as "the other person to own a CORDS OF VANITY". I could readily enough acquit myself, with good sound legal proofs, of any such singularity as stands charged in this soft impeachment—and that without appeal to The Cleveland Plain Dealer of eleven years ago ("slushy and disgusting"), or to The New York Post ("sterile and malodorous ... worse than immoral—dull"), or to Ainslee's Magazine ("inconsequent and rambling ... rather nauseating at times"). These devotees of the adjective that hunts in pairs are hardly to be discussed, I suppose, in connection with any rewards except such as accrue to the possessors of a certain obtuseness, who always and infallibly reap at least the reward of not being hurt by what they do not know—or, for that matter, by what they do know. He who writes such a book as THE CORDS OF VANITY is committing himself to the supremely irrational faith that this dullness is somehow not the ultimate arbiter; and for him the pronouncements of this dullness simply do not figure among either his rewards or his penalties. So, it is not exactly to these tributes of the press that one reverts in noting that THE CORDS OF VANITY, on its publication eleven years ago, promptly became a book which there were—almost—none to praise and very few to love. After all, its author's computation of that former audience of his—his actual individual voluntary readers of a decade ago—appears to be but slightly and pardonably exaggerated on the more modest side of the fact. If there were a Cabell Club of membership determined solely by the number of those who, already possessing THE CORDS OF VANITY in its first edition, recognize it as the work of a serious artist of high achievement and higher capacity, I suspect that the smallness of that club would be in inordinate disproportion to everything but its selectness and its members' pride in "belonging".
Be that as it may, the economist-author, on the eve of his book's emergence from the limbo of "out of print", prefers that it come into its redemption carrying a foreword by someone who knew it without dislike in its former incarnation. No contingent liability, it seems, can dissuade Mr. Cabell from this preference. An author who once elected to precede a group of his best tales with an introduction eloquently setting forth reasons why the collection ought not to be published at all, is hardly to be deterred now by the mere inexpediency of hitching his star to a farm-wagon. His own graciously unreasonable insistence must be the excuse, such as it is, for the present introduction, such as it is. If there may be said to exist a sort of charter membership in Mr. Cabell's audience, this document is to be construed as representing its very enthusiastic welcome to the later and vastly larger elective membership.
And if, weighed as such a welcome, it proves hopelessly inadequate, at least it provides a number of possible compensations by the way. For instance, that New York World critic who damned the book but praised its frontispiece of 1909, has now a uniquely pat opportunity to balance his ledger by praising the book and damning this foreword, which, more or less, replaces the frontispiece. Similarly, the more renowned critic and anthologist who so well knows the "originals" of the verses in From the Hidden Way, can now render poetically perfect justice to all who will care by perceiving that both the earlier edition of this book and the author of this foreword are but figments of Mr. Cabell's slightly puckish invention.
But these pages must not be, like those which follow, a comedy of shirking. They will have flouted a plain duty unless they speak of the sense and the degree in which this novel, during the process of reclaiming it, has been actually recreated. Perhaps the matter can be packed most succinctly into the statement that Mr. Cabell's hero has been subjected to such a process of growth as has made him commensurate in stature with the other two modern writers of Mr. Cabell's invention. As The Cream of the Jest is essentially the book of Felix Kennaston and Beyond Life that of John Charteris, so THE CORDS OF VANITY is essentially the book of Robert Etheridge Townsend. Now, this Townsend has accomplished a deal of growing since 1909. By this I do not mean that he is taken at a later period of his own imagined life, or that he fails to act consonantly with the extreme youth imputed to him: I mean that he is the creation of a more mature mind, a deeper philosophy, a more probing insight into the implications of things. A given youth of twenty-five will be very differently interpreted by an observer of thirty and by the same observer at forty, very much as a given era of the past will be understood differently by a single historian before and after certain cycles of his own social and political experience. The past never remains to us the same past; it grows up along with us; the physical facts may remain admittedly the same, but our understanding accents them differently, finds more in them at some points and less at others. So Robert Etheridge Townsend remains an example of that special temperament which, being unable to endure the contact of unhappiness, consistently shirks every responsibility that entails or threatens discomfort; and the truth about him, taking him as an example of just that temperament, is still inexorably told. But his weakness as a man becomes much more tolerable in this second version, because it is much more intimately and poignantly correlated with his strength as an artist. One is made to feel that he, like Charteris, may the better consummate in his art the auctorial virtues of distinction and clarity, beauty and symmetry, tenderness and truth and urbanity, precisely because his personal life is bereft of those virtues. Less than before, the accent is on the wastrel in Townsend; more than before, it is on the potential creator of beauty in him. The earlier readers will hardly count it as a fault that Mr. Cabell has contrived to make his novel, without detriment to any truth whatsoever, a far less unpleasant book. Sardonic it still is, by a necessary implication, but not wantonly, and with a mellowness. The irony, which at its harshest was capable of rasping the nerves, has become capable of wringing the heart.
Other reasons there are, too, for holding that THE CORDS OF VANITY is certain to make its second appeal to a many times multiplied audience. Since divers momentous transactions of the years just gone, the whole world stands in a moral position extraordinarily well adapted to the comprehension of just such a comedy of shirking; and especially the world of thought has received a powerful impulsion toward the area long occupied by Mr. Cabell's romantic pessimism. There is perhaps somewhat more demand for satire, or at least a growing toleration of it. Moreover, by sheer patience and reiteration Mr. Cabell has procured no little currency for some of his most characteristic ideas. Chivalry and gallantry, as he analyzes them, are concepts which play their part in the inevitable present re-editing of social and literary history. The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck, The Cream of the Jest, and The Certain Hour have somewhat to say to the discriminating, even on other than purely aesthetic grounds; Beyond Life is on the threshold of its day as the Sartor Resartus of one side, the aesthetic side, of modernism;
"Of Jurgen eke they maken mencion";
and THE CORDS OF VANITY is but the first of the earlier books to be reissued in the format of the uniform and accessible Intended Edition.
While THE CORDS OF VANITY was out of print, a fresh copy is known to have been acquired for twenty-five cents. Copies of a more recent work by the same hand—a tale which has been rendered equally unavailable to the public, though by slightly different considerations—have fetched as much as one hundred times that sum. This arithmetic may be, in part, the gauge of an unsought and distasteful notoriety; but that very notoriety, by the most natural of transitions, will lead the curious on from what cannot be obtained to what can, and some who have begun by seeking one particular work of a great artist will end by discovering the artist. In short, it is rational to expect that the fortunes hereafter of this rewritten novel will very excellently illustrate the uses of adversity.
Not, I repeat, that any great part of the reward for such writing can come from without. According to Robert Etheridge Townsend, "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"—a not un-Cabellian saying. And, even of the reward from without, it may be questioned whether the really indispensable part ever comes from the multitude. A lady with whose more candid opinions the writer of this is more frequently favored nowadays than of old has said: "Every time I hear of somebody who has wanted one of these books without being able to get it, or who, having got it, has conceded it nothing better than the disdain of an ignoramus, I feel as if I must forthwith get out the copy and read it through again and again, until I have read it once for every person who has rejected it or been denied it." One may feel reasonably sure that it is this kind of solicitude, rather than any possible sanction from the crowd, which would be thought of by the author of this book as "the exact high prize through desire of which we write".
I HE SITS OUT A DANCE
II HE LOVES EXTENSIVELY
III HE EARNS A STICK-PIN
IV HE TALKS WITH CHARTERIS
V HE REVISITS FAIRHAVEN AND THE PLAY
VI HE CHATS OVER A HEDGE
VII HE GOES MAD IN A GARDEN
VIII HE DUELS WITH A STUPID WOMAN
IX HE PUTS HIS TONGUE IN HIS CHEEK
X HE SAMPLES NEW EMOTIONS
XI HE POSTURES AMONG CHIMNEY-POTS
XII HE FACES HIMSELF AND REMEMBERS
XIII HE BAITS UPON THE JOURNEY
XIV HE PARTICIPATES IN A BRAVE JEST
XV HE DECIDES TO AMUSE HIMSELF
XVI HE SEEKS FOR COPY
XVII HE PROVIDES COPY
XVIII HE SPENDS AN AFTERNOON IN ARDEN
XIX HE PLAYS THE IMPROVIDENT FOOL
XX HE DINES OUT, IMPEDED BY SUPERSTITIONS
XXI HE IS URGED TO DESERT HIS GALLEY
XXII HE CLEANS THE SLATE
XXIII HE REVILES DESTINY AND CLIMBS A WALL
XXIV HE RECONCILES SENTIMENT AND REASON
XXV HE ADVANCES IN THE ATTACK ON SELWOODE
XXVI HE ASSISTS IN THE DIVERSION OF BIRDS
XXVII HE CALLS, COUNSELS, AND CONSIDERS
XXVIII HE PARTICIPATES IN SUNDRY CONFIDENCES
XXIX HE ALLOWS THE MERITS OF IMPERFECTION
XXX HE GILDS THE WEATHER-VANE
THE EPILOGUE: WHICH SUGGESTS THAT SECOND THOUGHTS—
"In the house and garden of his dream he saw a child moving, and could divide the main streams at least of the winds that had played on him, and study so the first stage in that mental journey."
The Prologue: Which Deals with the Essentials
It appeared to me that my circumstances clamored for betterment, because never in my life have I been able to endure the contact of unhappiness. And my mother was always crying now, over (though I did not know it) the luckiest chance which had ever befallen her; and that made me cry too, without understanding exactly why.
So the child, that then was I, procured a pencil and a bit of wrapping-paper, and began to write laboriously:
"You know that Papa died and please comfort Mama and give Father a crown of Glory Ammen
"Your lamb and very sincerely yours
"ROBERT ETHERIDGE TOWNSEND."
This appeared to the point as I re-read it, and of course God would understand that children were not expected to write quite as straight across the paper as grown people. The one problem was how to deliver this, my first letter, most expeditiously, because when your mother cried you always cried too, and couldn't stop, not even when you wanted to, not even when she promised you five cents, and it all made you horribly uncomfortable.
I knew that the big Bible on the parlor table was God's book. Probably God read it very often, since anybody would be proud of having written a book as big as that and would want to look at it every day. So I tiptoed into the darkened parlor. I use the word advisedly, for there was not at this period any drawing-room in Lichfield, and besides, a drawing-room is an entirely different matter.
Everywhere the room was cool, and, since the shades were down, the outlines of the room's contents were uncomfortably dubious; for just where the table stood had been, five days ago, a big and oddly-shaped black box with beautiful silver handles; and Uncle George had lifted me so that I could see through the pane of glass, which was a part of this funny box, while an infinity of decorous people rustled and whispered....
I remember knowing they were "company" and thinking they coughed and sniffed because they were sorry that my father was dead. In the light of knowledge latterly acquired, I attribute these actions to the then prevalent weather, for even now I recall how stiflingly the room smelt of flowers—particularly of magnolia blossoms—and of rubber and of wet umbrellas. For my own part, I was not at all sorry, though of course I pretended to be, since I had always known that as a rule my father whipped me because he had just quarreled with my mother, and that he then enjoyed whipping me.
I desired, in fine, that he should stay dead and possess his crown of glory in Heaven, which was reassuringly remote, and that my mother should stop crying. So I slipped my note into the Apocrypha....
I felt that somewhere in the room was God and that God was watching me, but I was not afraid. Yet I entertained, in common with most children, a nebulous distrust of this mysterious Person, a distrust of which I was particularly conscious on winter nights when the gas had been turned down to a blue fleck, and the shadow of the mantelpiece flickered and plunged on the ceiling, and the clock ticked louder and louder, in prediction (I suspected) of some terrible event very close at hand.
Then you remembered such unpleasant matters as Elisha and his bears, and those poor Egyptian children who had never even spoken to Moses, and that uncomfortably abstemious lady, in the fat blue-covered Arabian Nights, who ate nothing but rice, grain by grain—in the daytime.... And you called Mammy, and said you were very thirsty and wanted a glass of water, please.
To-day, though, while acutely conscious of that awful inspection, and painstakingly careful not to look behind me, I was not, after all, precisely afraid. If God were a bit like other people I knew He would say, "What an odd child!" and I liked to have people say that. Still, there was sunlight in the hall, and lots of sunlight, not just long and dusty shreds of sunlight, and I felt more comfortable when I was back in the hall.
I lay flat upon my stomach, having found that posture most conformable to the practice of reading, and I considered the cover of this slim, green book; the name of John Charteris, stamped thereon in fat-bellied letters of gold, meant less to me than it was destined to signify thereafter.
A deal of puzzling matter I found in this book, but in my memory, always, one fantastic passage clung as a burr to sheep's wool. That fable, too, meant less to me than it was destined to signify thereafter, when the author of it was used to declare that he had, unwittingly, written it about me. Then I read again this
Fable of the Foolish Prince
"As to all earlier happenings I choose in this place to be silent. Anterior adventures he had known of the right princely sort. But concerning his traffic with Schamir, the chief talisman, and how through its aid he won to the Sun's Sister for a little while; and concerning his dealings with the handsome Troll-wife (in which affair the cat he bribed with butter and the elm-tree he had decked with ribbons helped him); and with that beautiful and dire Thuringian woman whose soul was a red mouse: we have in this place naught to do. Besides, the Foolish Prince had put aside such commerce when the Fairy came to guide him; so he, at least, could not in equity have grudged the same privilege to his historian.
"Thus, the Fairy leading, the Foolish Prince went skipping along his father's highway. But the road was bordered by so many wonders—as here a bright pebble and there an anemone, say, and, just beyond, a brook which babbled an entreaty to be tasted,—that many folk had presently overtaken and had passed the loitering Foolish Prince. First came a grandee, supine in his gilded coach, with half-shut eyes, uneagerly meditant upon yesterday's statecraft or to-morrow's gallantry; and now three yokels, with ruddy cheeks and much dust upon their shoulders; now a haggard man in black, who constantly glanced backward; and now a corporal with an empty sleeve, who whistled as he went.
"A butterfly guided every man of them along the highway. 'For the Lord of the Fields is a whimsical person,' said the Fairy,' and such is his very old enactment concerning the passage even of his cowpath; but princes each in his day and in his way may trample this domain as prompt their will and skill.'
"'That now is excellent hearing,' said the Foolish Prince; and he strutted.
"'Look you,' said the Fairy, 'a man does not often stumble and break his shins in the highway, but rather in the byway.'....
"Thus, the Fairy leading, the Foolish Prince went skipping on his allotted journey, though he paused once in a while to shake his bauble at the staring sun.
"'The stars,' he considered, 'are more sympathetic....
"And thus, the Fairy leading, they came at last to a tall hedge wherein were a hundred wickets, all being closed; and those who had passed the Foolish Prince disputed before the hedge and measured the hundred wickets with thirty-nine articles and with a variety of instruments, and each man entered at his chosen wicket, and a butterfly went before him; but no man returned into the open country.
"'Now beyond each wicket,' said the Fairy, 'lies a great crucible, and by ninety and nine of these crucibles is a man consumed, or else transmuted into this animal or that animal. For such is the law in these parts and in human hearts.'
"The Prince demanded how if one found by chance the hundredth wicket? But she shook her head and said that none of the Tylwydd Teg was permitted to enter the Disenchanted Garden. Rumor had it that within the Garden, beyond the crucibles, was a Tree, but whether the fruit of this Tree were sweet or bitter no person in the Fields could tell, nor did the Fairy pretend to know what happened in the Garden.
"'Then why, in heaven's name, need a man test any of these wickets?' cried the Foolish Prince; 'with so much to lose and, it may be, nothing to gain? For one, I shall enter none of them.'
"But once more she shook her glittering head. 'In your House and in your Sign it was decreed. Time will be, my Prince; to-day the kid gambols and the ox chews his cud. Presently the butcher cries, Time is! Comes the hour and the power, and the cook bestirs herself and says, Time was! The master has his dinner, either way, all say, and every day.'
"And the Fairy vanished as she talked with him, her radiances thinning into the neutral colors of smoke, and thence dwindling a little by a little into the vaulting spiral of a windless and a burnt-out fire, until nothing remained of her save her voice; and that was like the moving of dead leaves before they fall.
"'Truly,' said the Foolish Prince, 'I am compelled to consider this a vexatious business. For, look you, the butterfly I just now admire flits over this wicket, and then her twin flutters over that wicket, and between them there is absolutely no disparity in attraction. Hoo! here is a more sensible insect.'
"And he leaped and cracked his heels together and ran after a golden butterfly that drifted to the rearward Fields. There was such a host of butterflies about that presently he had lost track of his first choice, and was in boisterous pursuit of a second, and then of a third, and then of yet others; but none of them did he ever capture, the while that one by one he followed divers butterflies of varying colors, and never a golden butterfly did he find any more.
"When it was evening, the sky drew up the twilight from the east as a blotter draws up ink, and stars were kindling everywhere like tiny signal-fires, and a light wind came out of the murky east and rustled very plaintively in places where the more ambiguous shadows were; and the Foolish Prince shivered, for the air was growing chill, and the tips of his fingers were aware of it.
"'A crucible,' he reflected, 'possesses the minor virtue of continuous warmth.'
"And before the hedge he found a Rational Person, led hither by a Clothes' Moth, working out the problem of the hundred wickets in consonance with the most approved methods. 'I have very nearly solved it,' the Rational Person said, in genteel triumph, 'but this evening grows too dark for any further ciphering, and again I must wait until to-morrow. I regret, sir, that you have elected to waste the day, in pursuit of various meretricious Lepidoptera.'
"'A happy day, my brother, is never wasted."
"'That appears to me to be nonsense,' said the Rational Person; and he put up his portfolio, preparatory to spending another night under his umbrella in the Fields.
"'Indeed, my brother?' laughed the Foolish Prince. 'Then, farewell, for I am assured that yonder, as here, our father makes the laws, and that to dispute his appreciation of the enticing qualities of butterflies were an impertinence.'
"Thereafter, pushing open the wicket nearest to his hand, the Foolish Prince tucked his bauble under his left arm and skipped into the Disenchanted Garden; and as he went he sang, not noting that, from somewhere in the thickening shadows, had arisen a golden butterfly which went before him through the wicket.
"Sang the Foolish Prince:
"'Farewell to Fields and Butterflies And levities of Yester-year! For we espy, and hold more dear, The Wicket of our Destinies.
"'Whereby we enter, once for all, A Garden which such fruit doth yield As, tasted once, no more Afield We fare where Youth holds carnival.
"'Farewell, fair Fields, none found amiss When laughter was a frequent noise And golden-hearted girls and boys Appraised the mouth they meant to kiss.
"'Farewell, farewell! but for a space We, being young, Afield might stray, That in our Garden nod and say, Afield is no unpleasant place.'"
In such disconnected fashion, as hereafter, I record the moments of my life which I most vividly remember. For it is possible only in the last paragraphs of a book, and for a book's people only, to look back upon an ordered and proportionate progression to what one has become; in life the thing arrives with scantier dignity; and one appears, in retrospection, less to have marched toward any goal than always to have jumped and scrambled from one stepping-stone to another because, however momentarily, "just this or that poor impulse seemed the sole work of a lifetime."
Well! at least I have known these moments and the rapture of their dominance; and I am not lightly to be stripped of recollection of them, nor of the attendant thrill either, by any cheerless hour wherein, as sometimes happens, my personal achievements confront me like a pile of flimsy jack-straws.
What does it all amount to?—I do not know. There may be some sort of supernal bookkeeping, somewhere, but very certainly it is not conformable to any human mathematics.
_THE CORDS OF VANITY
"His has been the summer air, and the sunshine, and the flowers; and gentle ears have listened to him, and gentle eyes have been upon him. Let others eat his honey that please, so that he has had his morsel and his song."_
He Sits Out a Dance
When I first knew Stella she was within a month of being fifteen, which is for womankind an unattractive age. There were a startling number of corners to her then, and she had but vague notions as to the management of her hands and feet. In consequence they were perpetually turning up in unexpected places and surprising her by their size and number. Yes, she was very hopelessly fifteen; and she was used to laugh, unnecessarily, in a nervous fashion, approximating to a whinny, and when engaged in conversation she patted down her skirts six times to the minute.
It seems oddly unbelievable when I reflect that Rosalind—"daughter to the banished Duke"—and Stella and Helen of Troy, and all the other famous fair ones of history, were each like that at one period or another.
As for myself, I was nine days younger than Stella, and so I was at this time very old—much older than it is ever permitted anyone to be afterward. I cherished the most optimistic ideas as to my impendent moustache, and was wont in privacy to encourage it with the manicure-scissors. I still entertained the belief that girls were upon the whole superfluous nuisances, but was beginning to perceive the expediency of concealing this opinion, even in private converse with my dearest chum, where, in our joyous interchange of various heresies, we touched upon this especial sub-division of fauna very lightly, and, I now suspect, with some self-consciousness.
All this was at a summer resort, which was called the Green Chalybeate. Stella and I and others of our age attended the hotel hops in the evening with religious punctuality, for well-meaning elders insisted these dances amused us, and it was easier to go than to argue the point. At least, that was the feeling of the boys.
Stella has since sworn the girls liked it. I suspect in this statement a certain parsimony as to the truth. They giggled too much and were never entirely free from that haunting anxiety concerning their skirts.
We danced together, Stella and I, to the strains of the last Sousa two-step (it was the Washington Post), and we conversed, meanwhile, with careful disregard of the amenities of life, since each feared lest the other might suspect in some common courtesy an attempt at—there is really no other word—spooning. And spooning was absurd.
Well, as I once read in the pages of a rare and little known author, one lives and learns.
I asked Stella to sit out a dance. I did this because I had heard Mr. Lethbury—a handsome man with waxed mustachios and an absolutely piratical amount of whiskers,—make the same request of Miss Van Orden, my just relinquished partner, and it was evident that such whiskers could do no wrong.
Stella was not uninfluenced, it may be, by Miss Van Orden's example, for even in girlhood the latter was a person of extraordinary beauty, whereas, as has been said, Stella's corners were then multitudinous; and it is probable that those two queer little knobs at the base of Stella's throat would be apt to render their owner uncomfortable and a bit abject before—let us say—more ample charms. In any event, Stella giggled and said she thought it would be just fine, and I presently conducted her to the third piazza of the hotel.
There we found a world that was new.
It was a world of sweet odors and strange lights, flooded with a kindly silence which was, somehow, composed of many lispings and trepidations and thin echoes. The night was warm, the sky all transparency. If the comparison was not manifestly absurd, I would liken that remembered sky's pale color to the look of blue plush rubbed the wrong way. And in its radiance the stars bathed, large and bright and intimate, yet blurred somewhat, like shop-lights seen through frosted panes; and the moon floated on it, crisp and clear as a new-minted coin. This was the full midsummer moon, grave and glorious, that compelled the eye; and its shield was obscurely marked, as though a Titan had breathed on its chill surface. Its light suffused the heavens and lay upon the earth beneath us in broad splashes; and the foliage about us was dappled with its splendor, save in the open east, where the undulant, low hills wore radiancy as a mantle.
For the trees, mostly maples of slight stature, clustered thickly about the hotel, and their branches mingled in a restless pattern of blacks and silvers and dim greens that mimicked the laughter of the sea under an April wind. Looking down from the piazza, over the expanse of tree-tops, all this was strangely like the sea; and it gave one, somehow, much the same sense of remote, unbounded spaces and of a beauty that was a little sinister. At times whippoorwills called to one another, eerie and shrill; and the distant dance-music was a vibration in the air, which was heavy with the scent of bruised growing things and was filled with the cool, healing magic of the moonlight.
Taking it all in all, we had blundered upon a very beautiful place. And there we sat for a while and talked in an aimless fashion. We did not know quite how one ought to "sit out" a dance, you conceive....
Then, moved by some queer impulse, I stared over the railing for a little at this great, wonderful, ambiguous world, and said solemnly:
"It is good."
"Yes," Stella agreed, in a curious, quiet and tiny voice, "it—it's very large, isn't it?" She looked out for a moment over the tree-tops. "It makes me feel like a little old nothing," she said, at last. "The stars are so big, and—so uninterested." Stella paused for an interval, and then spoke again, with an uncertain laugh. "I think I am rather afraid."
"Afraid?" I echoed.
"Yes," she said, vaguely; "of—of everything."
I understood. Even then I knew something of the occasional insufficiency of words.
"It is a big world," I assented, "and lots of people are having a right hard time in it right now. I reckon there is somebody dying this very minute not far off."
"It's all—waiting for us!" Stella had forgotten my existence. "It's bringing us so many things—and we don't know what any of them are. But we've got to take them, whether we want to or not. It isn't fair. We've got to—well, got to grow up, and—marry, and—die, whether we want to or not. We've no choice. And it may not matter, after all. Everything will keep right on like it did before; and the stars won't care; and what we've done and had done to us won't really matter!"
"Well, but, Stella, you can have a right good time first, anyway, if you keep away from ugly things and fussy people. And I reckon you really go to Heaven afterwards if you haven't been really bad,—don't you?"
"Rob,—are you ever afraid of dying?" Stella asked, "very much afraid—Oh, you know what I mean."
I did. I was about ten once more. It was dark, and I was passing a drug-store, with huge red and green and purple bottles glistening in the gas-lit windows; and it had just occurred to me that I, too, must die, and be locked up in a box, and let down with trunk-straps into a hole, like Father was.... So I said, "Yes."
"And yet we've got to! Oh, I don't see how people can go on living like everything was all right when that's always getting nearer,—when they know they've got to die before very long. Because they dance and go on picnics and buy hats as if they were going to live forever. I—oh, I can't understand."
"They get used to the idea, I reckon. We're sort of like the rats in the trap at home, in our stable," I suggested, poetically. "We can bite the wires and go crazy, like lots of them do, if we want to, or we can eat the cheese and kind of try not to think about it. Either way, there's no getting out till they come to kill us in the morning."
"Yes," sighed Stella; "I suppose we must make the best of it."
"It's the only sensible thing to do, far as I can see."
"But it is all so big—and so careless about us!" she said, after a little. "And we don't know—we can't know!—what is going to happen to you and me. And we can't stop its happening!"
"We'll just have to make the best of that, too," I protested, dolefully.
Stella sighed again, "I hope so," she assented; "still, I'm scared of it."
"I think I am, too—sort of," I conceded, after reflection. "Anyhow, I am going to have as good a time as I can."
There was now an even longer pause. Pitiable, ridiculous infants were pondering, somewhat vaguely but very solemnly, over certain mysteries of existence, which most of us have learned to accept with stolidity. We were young, and to us the miraculous insecurity and inconsequence of human life was still a little impressive, and we had not yet come to regard the universe as a more or less comfortable place, well-meaningly constructed anyhow—by Somebody—for us to reside in.
Therefore we moved a trifle closer together, Stella and I, and were commonly miserable over the Weltschmerz. After a little a distant whippoorwill woke me from a chaos of reverie, and I turned to Stella, with a vague sense that we two were the only people left in the whole world, and that I was very, very fond of her.
Stella's head was leaned backward. Her lips were parted, and the moonlight glinted in her eyes. Her eyes were blue.
"Don't!" said Stella, faintly.
It was a matter out of my volition, out of my planning. And, oh, the wonder, and sweetness, and sacredness of it! I thought, even in the instant; and, oh, the pity that, after all, it is slightly disappointing....
Stella was not angry, as I had half expected. "That was dear of you," she said, impulsively, "but don't try to do it again." There was the wisdom of centuries in this mandate of Stella's as she rose from the bench. The spell was broken, utterly. "I think," said Stella, in the voice of a girl of fifteen, "I think we'd better go and dance some more."
In the crude morning I approached Stella, with a fatuous smile. She apparently both perceived and resented my bearing, although she never once looked at me. There was something of great interest to her in the distance, apparently down by the springhouse; she was flushed and indignant; and her eyes wouldn't, couldn't, and didn't turn for an instant in my direction.
"If," said she, impersonally, "if you believe it was because of you, you are very much mistaken. It would have been the same with anybody. You don't understand, and I don't either. Anyhow, I think you are a mess, and I hate you. Go away from me!"
And she stamped her foot in a fine rage.
For the moment I entertained an un-Christian desire that Stella had been born a boy. In that case, I felt, I would, just then, have really enjoyed sitting upon the back of her head, and grinding her nose into the lawn, and otherwise persuading her to cry "'Nough." These virile pleasures being denied me, I sought for comfort in discourteous speech.
"Umph-huh!" said I, "and you think you're mighty smart, don't you? Well, I don't want you pawing around me any more, either. I won't have it, do you understand! That was what I was going to tell you anyhow, you kissing-bug, even if you hadn't acted so smart. And you can just stick that right in your pipe and smoke it, you old Miss Smart Alec."
Thereupon I—wisely—departed without delay. A rock struck me rather forcibly between the shoulder blades, but I did not deign to notice this phenomenon.
"You can't fight girls with fists," I reflected. "You've just got to talk to them in the right way."
He Loves Extensively
I saw no more of Stella for a lengthy while, since within two days of the events recorded it pleased my mother to seek out another summer resort.
"For in September," she said, "I really must have perfect quiet and unimpeachable butter, and falling leaves, and only a very few congenial people to be melancholy with,—and that sort of thing, you know. I find it freshens one up so against the winter."
It was a signal feature of my mother's conversation that you never understood, precisely, what she was talking about.
Thus in her train the silly, pretty woman drew otherwhither her hobbledehoy son, as indeed Claire Bulmer Townsend had aforetime drawn an armament of more mature and stolid members of my sex. I was always proud of my handsome mother, but without any aspirations, however theoretical, toward intimacy; and her periods of conscientious if vague affection, when she recollected its propriety, I endured with consolatory foreknowledge of an impendent, more agreeable era of neglect.
I fancy that at bottom I was without suspecting it lonely. I was an only child; my father had died, as has been hinted, when I was in kilts.... No, I must have graduated from kilts into "knee-pants" when the Democracy of Lichfield celebrated Grover Cleveland's first election as President, for I was seven years old then, and was allowed to stay up ever so late after supper to watch the torchlight parade. I recollect being rather pleasantly scared by the yells of all those marching people and by the glistening of their faces as the irregular flaring torches heaved by; and I recollect how delightfully the cold night air was flavored with kerosene. In any event, it was on this generally festive November night that my father again took too much to drink, and, coming home toward morning, lay down and went to sleep in the vestibule between our front-door and the storm-doors; and five days later died of pneumonia...In that era I was accounted an odd boy; given to reading and secretive ways, and, they record, to long silences throughout which my lips would move noiselessly. "Just talking to one of my friends," they tell me I was used to explain; though it was not until my career at King's College that I may be said to have pretended to intimacy with anybody.
For in old Fairhaven I spent, of course, a period of ostensible study, as four generations of my fathers had done aforetime. But in that leisured, slatternly and ancient city I garnered a far larger harvest of (comparatively) innocuous cakes and ale than of authentic learning, and at my graduation carried little of moment from the place save many memories of Bettie Hamlyn.... Her father taught me Latin at King's College, while Bettie taught me human intimacy—almost. Looking back, I have not ever been intimate with anybody....
Not but that I had my friends. In particular I remember those four of us who always called ourselves—in flat defiance, just as Dumas did, of mere arithmetic—"The Three Musketeers." I think that we loved one another very greatly during the four years we spent together in our youth. I like to believe we did, and to remember the boys who were once unreasonably happy, even now. It does not seem to count, somehow, that Aramis has taken to drink and every other inexpedient course, I hear, and that I would not recognize him today, were we two to encounter casually—or Athos, either, I suppose, now that he has been so long in the Philippines.
And as for D'Artagnan—or Billy Woods, if you prefer the appellation which his sponsors gave him,—why we are still good friends and always will be, I suppose. But we are not particularly intimate; and very certainly we will never again read Chastelard together and declaim the more impassioned parts of it,—and in fine, I cannot help seeing, nowadays, that, especially since his marriage, Billy has developed into a rather obvious and stupid person, and that he considers me to be a bit of a bad egg. And in a phrase, when we are together, just we two, we smoke a great deal and do not talk any more than is necessary.
And once I would have quite sincerely enjoyed any death, however excruciating, which promoted the well-being of Billy Woods; and he viewed me not dissimilarly, I believe.... However, after all, this was a long, long while ago, and in a period almost antediluvian.
And during this period they of Fairhaven assumed I was in love with Bettie Hamlyn; and for a very little while, at the beginning, had I assumed as much. More lately was my error flagrantly apparent when I fell in love with someone else, and sincerely in love, and found to my amazement that, upon the whole, I preferred Bettie's companionship to that of the woman I adored. By and by, though, I learned to accept this odd, continuing phenomenon much as I had learned to accept the sunrise.
Once Bettie demanded of me, "I often wonder what you really think of me? Honest injun, I mean."
I meditated, and presently began, with leisure:
"Miss Hamlyn is a young woman of considerable personal attractions, and with one exception is unhandicapped by accomplishments. She plays the piano, it is true, but she does it divinely and she neither crochets nor embroiders presents for people, nor sketches, nor recites, nor sings, or in fine annoys the public in any way whatsoever. Her enemies deny that she is good-looking, but even her friends concede her curious picturesqueness and her knowledge of it. Her penetration, indeed, is not to be despised; she has even grasped the fact that all men are not necessarily fools in spite of the fashion in which they talk to women. It must be admitted, however, that her emotions are prone to take precedence of her reasoning powers: thus she is not easily misled from getting what she desires, save by those whom she loves, because in argument, while always illogical, she is invariably convincing—"
Miss Hamlyn sniffed. "This is, perhaps, the inevitable effect of twenty cigarettes a day," was her cryptic comment. "Nevertheless, it does affect me with ennui."
"—For, the mere facts of the case she plainly demonstrates, with the abettance of her dimples, to be an affair of unimportance; the real point is what she wishes done about it. Yet the proffering of any particular piece of advice does not necessarily signify that she either expects or wishes it to be followed, since had she been present at the Creation she would have cheerfully pointed out to the Deity His various mistakes, and have offered her co-operation toward bettering matters, and have thought a deal less of Him had He accepted it; but this is merely a habit—" "Yes?" said Bettie, yawning; and she added: "Do you know, Robin, the saddest and most desolate thing in the world is to practise an etude of Schumann's in nine flats, and the next is to realize that a man who has been in love with you has recovered for keeps?"
"—It must not be imagined, however, that Miss Hamlyn is untruthful, for when driven by impertinences into a corner she conceals her real opinion by voicing it quite honestly as if she were joking. Thereupon you credit her with the employment of irony and the possession of every imaginable and super-angelical characteristic—"
"Unless we come to a better understanding," Miss Hamlyn crisply began, "we had better stop right here before we come to a worse—"
"—Miss Hamlyn, in a word, is possessed of no insufferable virtues and of many endearing faults; and in common with the rest of humanity, she regards her disapproval of any proceeding as clear proof of its impropriety." This was largely apropos of a fire-new debate concerning the deleterious effects of cigarette-smoking; and when I had made an end, and doggedly lighted another one of them, Bettie said nothing.... She minded chiefly that one of us should have thought of the other without bias. She said it was not fair. And I know now that she was right.
But of Bettie Hamlyn, for reasons you may learn hereafter if you so elect, I honestly prefer to write not at all. Four years, in fine, we spent to every purpose together, and they were very happy years. To record them would be desecration.
Meantime, during these years, I had fallen in and out of love assiduously. Since the Anabasis of lad's love traverses a monotonous country, where one hill is largely like another, and one meadow a duplicate of the next to the last daffodil, I may with profit dwell upon the green-sickness lightly. It suffices that in the course of these four years I challenged superstition by adoring thirteen girls, and, worse than that, wrote verses of them.
I give you their names herewith—though not their workaday names, lest the wives of divers people be offended (and in many cases, surprised), but the appellatives which figured in my rhymes. They were Heart's Desire, Florimel, Dolores, Yolande, Adelais, Sylvia, Heart o' My Heart, Chloris, Felise, Ettarre, Phyllis, Phyllida, and Dorothy. Here was a rosary of exquisite names, I even now concede; and the owner of each nom de plume I, for however brief a period, adored for this or that peculiar excellence; and by ordinary without presuming to mention the fact to any of these divinities save Heart o' My Heart, who was, after all, only a Penate.
Outside the elevated orbits of rhyme she was called Elizabeth Hamlyn; and it afterward became apparent to me that I, in reality, wrote all the verses of this period solely for the pleasure of reading them aloud to Bettie, for certainly I disclosed their existence to no one else—except just one or two to Phyllida, who was "literary."
And the upshot of all this heart-burning is most succinctly given in my own far from impeccable verse, as Bettie Hamlyn heard the summing-up one evening in May. It was the year I graduated from King's College, and the exact relation of the date to the Annos Domini is trivial. But the battle of Manila had just been fought, and off Santiago Captain Sampson and Commander Schley were still hunting for Cervera's "phantom fleet." And in Fairhaven, as I remember it, although there was a highly-colored picture of Commodore Dewey in the barber-shop window, nobody was bothering in the least about the war except when Colonel Snawley and Dr. Jeal foregathered at Clarriker's Emporium to denounce the colossal errors of "imperialism"....
"Thus, then, I end my calendar Of ancient loves more light than air;— And now Lad's Love, that led afar In April fields that were so fair, Is fled, and I no longer share Sedate unutterable days With Heart's Desire, nor ever praise Felise, or mirror forth the lures Of Stella's eyes nor Sylvia's, Yet love for each loved lass endures.
"Chloris is wedded, and Ettarre Forgets; Yolande loves otherwhere, And worms long since made bold to mar The lips of Dorothy and fare Mid Florimel's bright ruined hair; And Time obscures that roseate haze Which glorified hushed woodland ways When Phyllis came, as Time obscures That faith which once was Phyllida's,— Yet love for each loved lass endures.
"That boy is dead as Schariar, Tiglath-pileser, or Clotaire, Who once of love got many a scar. And his loved lasses past compare?— None is alive now anywhere. Each is transmuted nowadays Into a stranger, and displays No whit of love's investitures. I let these women go their ways, Yet love for each loved lass endures.
"Heart o' My Heart, thine be the praise If aught of good in me betrays Thy tutelage—whose love matures Unmarred in these more wistful days,— Yet love for each loved lass endures."
For this was the year that I graduated, and Chloris—I violate no confidence in stating that her actual name was Aurelia Minns, and that she had been, for a greater number of years than it would be courteous to remember, the undisputed belle of Fairhaven,—had that very afternoon married a promising young doctor; and I was draining the cup of my misery to the last delicious drop, and was of course inspired thereby to the perpetration of such melancholy bathos as only a care-free youth of twenty is capable of evolving.
"Dear boy," said Bettie, when I had made an end of reading, "and are you very miserable?"
Her fingers were interlocked behind her small black head; and the sympathy with which she regarded me was tenderly flavored with amusement.
This much I noticed as I glanced upward from my manuscript, and mustered a Spartan smile. "If misery loves company, then am I the least unhappy soul alive. For I don't want anybody but just you, and I believe I never will."
"Oh—? But I don't count." The girl continued, with composure: "Or rather, I have always counted your affairs, so that I know precisely what it all amounts to."
"A lot of imitation emotions." She added hastily: "Oh, quite a good imitation, dear; you are smooth enough to see to that. Why, I remember once—when you read me that first sonnet, sitting all hunched up on the little stool, and pretending you didn't know I knew who you meant me to know it was for, and ending with a really very effective, breathless sob—and caught my hand and pressed it to your forehead for a moment—Why, that time I was thoroughly rattled and almost believed—even I—that—" She shrugged. "And if I had been younger—!" she said, half regretfully, for at this time Bettie was very nearly twenty-two.
"Yes." The effective breathless sob responded to what had virtually been an encore. "I have not forgotten."
"Only for a moment, though." Miss Hamlyn reflected, and then added, brightly: "Now, most girls would have liked it, for it sounded all wool. And they would have gone into it, as you wanted, and have been very, very happy for a while. Then, after a time—after you had got a sonnet or two out of it, and had made a sufficiency of pretty speeches,—you would have gone for an admiring walk about yourself, and would have inspected your sensations and have applauded them, quite enthusiastically, and would have said, in effect: 'Madam, I thank you for your attention. Pray regard the incident as closed.'"
"You are doing me," I observed, "an injustice. And however tiny they may be, I hate 'em."
"But, Robin, can't you see," she said, with an odd earnestness, "that to be fond of you is quite disgracefully easy, even though—" Bettie Hamlyn said, presently: "Why, your one object in life appears to be to find a girl who will allow you to moon around her and make verses about her. Oh, very well! I met to-day just the sort of pretty idiot who will let you do it. She is visiting Kathleen Eppes for the Finals. She has a great deal of money, too, I hear." And Bettie mentioned a name.
"That's rather queer," said I. "I used to know that girl. She will be at the K. A. dance to-morrow night, I suppose,"—and I put up my manuscript with a large air of tolerance. "I dare say that I have been exaggerating matters a bit, after all. Any woman who treated me in the way that Miss Aurelia did is not, really, worthy of regret. And in any event, I got a ballade out of her and six—no, seven—other poems."
For the name which Bettie had mentioned was that of Stella Musgrave, and I was, somehow, curiously desirous to come again to Stella, and nervous about it, too, even then....
He Earns a Stick-pin
"Dear me!" said Stella, wonderingly; "I would never have known you in the world! You've grown so fa—I mean, you are so well built. I've grown? Nonsense!—and besides, what did you expect me to do in six years?—and moreover, it is abominably rude of you to presume to speak of me in that abstracted and figurative manner—quite as if I were a debt or a taste for drink. It is really only French heels and a pompadour, and, of course, you can't have this dance. It's promised, and I hop, you know, frightfully.... Why, naturally, I haven't forgotten—How could I, when you were the most disagreeable boy I ever knew?"
I ventured a suggestion that caused Stella to turn an attractive pink, and laugh. "No," said she, demurely, "I shall never never sit out another dance with you."
So she did remember!
Subsequently: "Our steps suit perfectly—Heavens! you are the fifth man who has said that to-night, and I am sure it would be very silly and very tiresome to dance through life with anybody. Men are so absurd, don't you think? Oh, yes, I tell them all—every one of them—that our steps suit, even when they have just ripped off a yard or so of flounce in an attempt to walk up the front of my dress. It makes them happy, poor things, and injures nobody. You liked it, you know; you grinned like a pleased cat. I like cats, don't you?"
Later: "That is absolute nonsense, you know," said Stella, critically. "Do you always get red in the face when you make love? I wouldn't if I were you. You really have no idea how queer it makes you look."
Still later: "No, I don't think I am going anywhere to-morrow afternoon," said Stella.
So that during the fleet moments of these Finals, while our army was effecting a landing in Cuba, I saw as much of Stella as was possible; and veracity compels the admission that she made no marked effort to prevent my doing so. Indeed, she was quite cross, and scornful, about the crowning glory being denied her, of going with me to the Baccalaureate Address the morning I received my degree. To that of course I took Bettie.
I said good-bye to Bettie Hamlyn rather late one evening. It was in her garden. The Finals were over, and Stella had left Fairhaven that afternoon. I was to follow in the morning, by an early train.
It was a hot, still night in June, with never a breath of air stirring. In the sky was a low-hung moon, full and very red. It was an evil moon, and it lighted a night that was unreasonably ominous. And Bettie and I had talked of trifles resolutely for two hours.
"Well—good-bye Bettie," I said at last. "I'm glad it isn't for long." For of course we meant never to let a month elapse without our seeing each other.
"Good-bye," she said, and casually shook hands.
Then Bettie Hamlyn said, in a different voice: "Robin, you come of such a bad lot, and already you are by way of being a rather frightful liar. And I'm letting you go. I'm turning you over to Stellas and mothers and things like that just because I have to. It isn't fair. They will make another Townsend of my boy, and after all I've tried to do. Oh, Robin, don't let anybody or anything do that to you! Do try to do the unpleasant thing sometimes, my dear!—But what's the good of promising?"
"And have I ever failed you, Bettie?"
"No,—not me," she answered, almost as though she grudged the fact. Then Bettie laughed a little. "Indeed, I'm trying to believe you never will. Oh, indeed, I am. But just be honest with me, Robin, and nothing else will ever matter very much. I don't care what you do, if only you are always honest with me. You can murder people, if you like, and burn down as many houses as you choose. You probably will. But you'll be honest with me—won't you?—and particularly when you don't want to be?"
So I promised her that. And sometimes I believe it is the only promise which I ever tried to keep quite faithfully....
And all the ensuing summer I followed Stella Musgrave from one watering place to another, with an engaging and entire candor as to my desires. I was upon the verge of my majority, when, under the terms of my father's will, I would come into possession of such fragments of his patrimony as he had omitted to squander. And afterward I intended to become excessively distinguished in this or that profession, not as yet irrevocably fixed upon, but for choice as a writer of immortal verse; and I was used to dwell at this time very feelingly, and very frequently, upon the wholesome restraint which matrimony imposes upon the possessor of an artistic temperament.
Stella promised to place my name upon her waiting list, and to take up the matter in due season; and she lamented, with a tiny and pre-meditated yawn, that as a servitor of system she was compelled to list her "little lovers and suitors in alphabetical order, Mr. Townsend. Besides, you would probably strangle me before the year was out."
"I would thoroughly enjoy doing it," I said, grimly, "right now." She regarded me for a while. "You would, too," she said at last, with an alien gravity; "and that is why—Oh, Rob dear, you are out of my dimension. I am rather afraid of you. I am a poor bewildered triangle who is being wooed by a cube!" the girl wailed, and but half humorously.
And I began to plead. It does not matter what I said. It never mattered.
And persons more sensible than I found then far more important things to talk about, such as General Alger's inefficiency, and General Shafter's hammock, and "embalmed beef," and the folly of taking over the Philippines, and Admiral von Diedrich's behavior, and the yellow fever in our camps and the comparative claims of Messrs. Sampson and Schley to be made rear-admiral; and everybody more or less was demanding "an investigation," as the natural aftermath of a war.
Stella's mother had closed Bellemeade for the year, however, and they were to spend the winter in Lichfield; and Stella, to reduplicate her phrase, promised to "think it over very seriously."
But I suppose I had never any real chance against Peter Blagden. To begin with,—though Stella herself, of course, would inherit plenty of money when her mother died,—Peter was the only nephew of a childless uncle who was popularly reported to "roll in wealth"; and in addition, Peter was seven years older than I and notoriously dissipated. No other girl of twenty would have hesitated between us half so long as Stella did. She hesitated through a whole winter; and even now there is odd, if scanty, comfort in the fact that Stella hesitated....
Besides Peter was eminently likeable. At times I almost liked him myself, for all my fervent envy of his recognized depravity and of the hateful ease with which he thought of something to say in those uncomfortable moments when he and I and Stella were together. At most other times I could talk glibly enough, but before this seasoned scapegrace I was dumb, and felt my reputation to be hopelessly immaculate ... If only Stella would believe me to be just the tiniest bit depraved! I blush to think of the dark hints I dropped as to entirely fictitious women who "had been too kind to me. But then"—as I would feelingly lament,—"we could never let women alone, we Townsends, you know—"
One woman at least I was beginning to "let alone", in that I was writing Bettie Hamlyn letters which grew shorter and shorter.... Her mother had fallen ill, not long after I left college; and she and Bettie were now a great way off, in Colorado, where the old lady was dying, with the most selfish sort of laziness about it, and so was involving me in endless correspondence.... At least, I wrote to Bettie punctually, if briefly, though I had not seen her since that night when the moon was red, and big, and very evil. I had to do it, because she had insisted that I write.
"But letters don't mean anything, Bettie. And besides, I hate writing letters."
"That is just why you must write to me regularly. You never do the things you don't want to do. I know it. But for me you always will, and that makes all the difference."
"Shylock!" I retorted.
"If you like. In any event, I mean to have my pound of flesh, and regularly."
So I wrote to Bettie Hamlyn on the seventh of every month—because that was her birthday,—and again on the twenty-third, because that was mine. The rest of my time I gave whole-heartedly to Stella....
They named her Stella, I fancy, because her eyes were so like stars. It is manifestly an irrelevant detail that there do not happen to be any azure stars. Indeed, I am inclined to think that Nature belatedly observed this omission, and created Stella's eyes to make up for it; at any rate, if you can imagine Aldebaran or Benetnasch polished up a bit and set in a speedwell-cup, you will have a very fair idea of one of them. You cannot, however, picture to yourself the effect of the pair of them, because the human mind is limited.
Really, though, their effect was curious. You noticed them casually, let us say; then, without warning, you ceased to notice anything. You simply grew foolish and gasped like a newly-hooked trout, and went mad and babbled as meaninglessly as a silly little rustic brook trotting under a bridge.
I have seen the thing happen any number of times. And, strangely enough, you liked it. Numbers of young men would venture into the same room with those disconcerting eyes the very next evening, even appearing to seek them out and to court peril, as it were,—young men who must have known perfectly well, either by report or experience, the unavoidable result of such fool-hardy conduct. For eventually it always culminated in Stella's being deeply surprised and grieved,—at a dance, for choice, with music and color and the unthinking laughter of others to heighten the sadness and the romance of it all,—she never having dreamed of such a thing, of course, and having always regarded you only as a dear, dear friend. Yes, and she used certainly to hope that nothing she had said or done could have led you to believe she had even for a moment considered such a thing. Oh, she did it well, did Stella, and endured these frequent griefs and surprises with, I must protest, quite exemplary patience. In a phrase, she was the most adorable combination of the prevaricator, the jilt and the coquette I have ever encountered.
So, for the seventh time, I asked Stella to marry me. Nearly every fellow I knew had done as much, particularly Peter Blagden; and it is always a mistake to appear unnecessarily reserved or exclusive. And this time in declining—with a fluency that bespoke considerable practice,—she informed me that, as the story books have it, she was shortly to be wedded to another.
And Peter Blagden clapped the pinnacle upon my anguish by asking me to be the best man. I knew even then whose vanity and whose sense of the appropriate had put him up to it....
"For I haven't a living male relative of the suitable age except two second cousins that I don't see much of—praise God!" said Peter, fervently; "and Hugh Van Orden looks about half-past ten, whereas I class John Charteris among the lower orders of vermin."
I consented to accept the proffered office and the incidental stick-pin; and was thus enabled to observe from the inside this episode of Stella's life, and to find it quite like other weddings.
Something like this:
"Look here," a perspiring and fidgety Peter protested, at the last moment, as we lurked in the gloomy vestry with not a drop left in either flask; "look here, Henderson hasn't blacked the soles of these blessed shoes. I'll look like an ass when it comes to the kneeling part—like an ass, I tell you! Good heavens, they'll look like tombstones!"
"If you funk now," said I, severely, "I'll never help you get married again. Oh, sainted Ebenezer in bliss, and whatever have I done with that ring? No, it's here all right, but you are on the wrong side of me again. And there goes the organ—Good God, Peter, look at her! simply look at her, man! Oh, you lucky devil! you lucky jackass!"
I spoke enviously, you understand, simply to encourage him.
Followed a glaring of lights, a swishing of fans, a sense that Peter was not keeping step with me, and the hum of densely packed, expectant humanity; a blare of music; then Stella, an incredible vision with glad, frightened eyes. My shoulders straightened, and I was not out of temper any longer. The organist was playing softly, Oh, Promise Me, and I was thinking of the time, last January, that Stella and I heard The Bostonians, and how funny Henry Clay Barnabee was.... "—so long as ye both may live?" ended the bishop.
"I will," poor Peter quavered, with obvious uncertainty about it.
And still one saw in Stella's eyes unutterable happiness and fear, but her voice was tranquil. I found time to wonder at its steadiness, even though, just about this time, I resonantly burst a button off one of my new gloves. I fancy they must have been rather tight.
"And thereto," said Stella, calmly, "I give thee my troth."
And subsequently they were Mendelssohned out of church to the satisfaction of a large and critical audience. I came down the aisle with Stella's only sister—who afterward married the Marquis d'Arlanges,—and found Lizzie very entertaining later in the evening....
Yes, it was quite like other weddings. I only wonder for what conceivable reason I remember its least detail, and so vividly. For it all happened a great while ago, when—of such flimsy stuff is glory woven,—Emilio Aguinaldo and Captain Coghlan were the persons most talked of in America; and when the Mazet committee was "investigating" I forget what, but with column after column about it in the papers every day; and when Me und Gott was a famous poem, and "to hobsonize" was the most popular verb; and when I was twenty-one. Sic transit gloria mundi, as it says in the back of the dictionary.
He Talks with Charteris
It was upon the evening of this day, after Mr. and Mrs. Blagden had been duly rice-pelted and entrained, that I first talked against John Charteris. The novelist was, as has been said, a cousin of Peter Blagden, and as such, was one of the wedding guests at Bellemeade; and that evening, well toward midnight, the little man, midway in the consumption of one of his interminable cigarettes, happened to come upon me seated upon the terrace and gazing, rather vacantly, in the direction of the moon.
I was not thinking of anything in particular; only there was a by-end of verse which sang itself over and over again, somewhere in the back of my brain—"Her eyes were the eyes of a bride whom delight makes afraid, her eyes were the eyes of a bride"—and so on, all over again, as at night a traveller may hear his train jogging through a monotonous and stiff-jointed song; and in my heart there was just hunger.
Charteris had heard, one may presume, of my disastrous love-business; and with all an author's relish of emotion, in others, chose his gambit swiftly. "Mr. Townsend, is it not? Then may a murrain light upon thee, Mr. Townsend,—whatever a murrain may happen to be,—since you have disturbed me in the concoction of an ever-living and entrancing fable."
"I may safely go as far," said I, "as to offer the proverbial penny."
"Done!" cried Mr. Charteris. He meditated for a moment, and then began, in a low and curiously melodious voice, to narrate
The Apologue of the First Conjugation
"When the gods of Hellas were discrowned, there was a famous scurrying from Olympos to the world of mortals, where each deity must henceforward make shift to do without godhead:—Aphrodite in her hollow hill, where the good knight Tannhauser revels yet, it may be; Hephaestos, in some smithy; whilst Athene, for aught I know, established a girls' boarding school, and Helios, as is notorious, died under priestly torture, and Dionysos cannily took holy orders, and Hermes set up as a merchant in Friesland. But Eros went to the Grammarians. He would be a schoolmaster.
"The Grammarians, grim, snuffy and wrinkled though they might be, were no more impervious to his allures than are the rest of us, and in consequence appointed him to an office. This office was, I glean of mediaeval legend, that of teaching dunderheaded mortals the First Conjugation. So Eros donned cap and gown, took lodgings with a quiet musical family, and set amo as the first model verb; and ever since this period has the verb 'to love' been the first to be mastered in all well-constituted grammars, as it is in life.
"Heigho! it is not an easy verb to conjugate. One gets into trouble enough, in floundering through its manifold nuances, which range inevitably through the bold-faced 'I love', the confident 'I will love', the hopeful 'I may be loved', and so on to the wistful, pitiful Pluperfect Subjunctive Passive, 'I might have been loved if'—Then each of us may supply the Protasis as best befits his personal opinion and particular scars, and may tear his hair, or scribble verses, or adopt the cynical, or, in fine, assume any pose which strikes his fancy. For he has graduated into the Second Conjugation, which is moneo; and may now admonish to his heart's content, whilst looking back complacently into the First Classroom, where others—and so many others!—are still struggling with that mischancy verb, and are involved in the very conditions—verbal or otherwise—which aforetime saddened him, or showed him a possible byway toward recreation, or played the deuce with his liver, according to the nature of the man.
"Eros is a hard, implacable pedagogue, and for the fact his scholars suffer. He wields a rod rather than a filigree bow, as old romancers fabled,—no plaything, but a most business-like article, well-poised in the handle, and thence tapering into graceful, stinging nothingness; and not a scholar escapes at least a flick of it.
"I can fancy the class called up as Eros administers, with zest, his penalties. Master Paris! for loving his neighbor a little less than himself, and his neighbor's wife a little more. Master Lancelot! ditto. Masters Petrarch, Tristram, Antony, Juan Tenorio, Dante Alighieri, and others! ditto. There are a great many called up for this particular form of peccancy, you observe; even Master David has to lay aside his Psalm Book, and go forward with the others for chastisement. Master Romeo! for trespassing in other people's gardens and mausoleums. Master Leander! for swimming in the Hellespont after dark; and Master Tarquin! for mistaking his bedroom at the Collatini's house-party.
"Thus, one by one, each scholar goes into the darkened private office. The master handles his rod—eia! 'tis borrowed from the Erinnyes,—lovingly, caressingly, like a very conscientious person about the performance of his duty. Then comes the dreadful order, 'Take down your breeches, sir!'.... But the scene is too horrible to contemplate. He punishes all, this schoolmaster, for he is unbelievably old, and with the years' advance has grown querulous.
"Well, now I approach my moral, Mr. Townsend. One must have one's birching with the others, and of necessity there remains but to make the best of it. Birching is not a dignified process, and the endurer comes therefrom both sore and shamefaced. Yet always in such contretemps it is expedient to brazen out the matter, and to present as stately an appearance, we will say, as one's welts permit.
"First, to the world—"
But at this point I raised my hand. "That is easily done, Mr. Charteris, inasmuch as the world cares nothing whatever about it. The world is composed of men and women who have their own affairs to mind. How in heaven's name does it concern them that a boy has dreamed dreams and has gone mad like a star-struck moth? It was foolish of him. Such is the verdict, given in a voice that is neither kindly nor severe; and the world, mildly wondering, passes on to deal with more weighty matters. For vegetables are higher than ever this year, and, upon my word, Mrs. Grundy, ma'am, a housekeeper simply doesn't know where to turn, with the outrageous prices they are asking for everything these days. No, believe me, the world does not take love-affairs very seriously—not even the great ones," I added, in noble toleration.
And with an appreciative chuckle, Charteris sank beside me upon the bench.
"My adorable boy! so you have a tongue in your head."
"But can't you imagine the knights talking over Lancelot's affair with Guenevere, at whatever was the Arthurian substitute for a club? and sniggering over it? and Lamoracke sagaciously observing that there was always a crooked streak in the Leodograunce family? Or one Roman matron punching a chicken in the ribs, and remarking to her neighbor at the poultry man's stall: 'Well, Mrs. Gracchus, they do say Antony is absolutely daft over that notorious Queen of Egypt. A brazen-faced thing, with a very muddy complexion, I'm told, and practically no reputation, of course, after the way she carried on with Caesar. And that reminds me, I hear your little Caius suffers from the croup. Now my remedy'—and so they waddle on, to price asparagus."
Charteris said: "Well! we need not go out of our way to meddle with the affairs of others; the entanglement is most disastrously apt to come about of itself quite soon enough. Yet a little while and Lancelot will be running Lamoracke through the body, while the King storms Joyeuse Garde; a few months and your Roman matron will weep quietly on her unshared pillow—not aloud, though, for fear of disturbing the children,—while Gracchus is dreadfully seasick at Actium."
"But that doesn't prove anything," I stammered. "Why, it doesn't follow logically—"
"Nor does anything else. This fact is the chief charm of life. You will presently find, I think, that living means a daily squandering of interest upon the first half of a number of two-part stories which have not ever any sequel. Oh, my adorable boy, I envy you to-night's misery so profoundly I am half unwilling to assure you that in the ultimate one finds a broken heart rather fattening than otherwise; and that a blighted life has never yet been known to prevent queer happenings in conservatories and such-like secluded places or to rob a solitude a deux of possibilities. I grant you that love is a wonderful thing; but there are a many emotions which stand toward love much as the makers of certain marmalades assert their wares to stand toward butter—'serving as an excellent occasional substitute.' At least, so you will find it. And unheroic as it is, within the month you will forget."
"No,—I shall not quite forget," said I.
"Then were you the more unwise. To forget, both speedily and frequently, is the sole method of rendering life livable. One is here; the importance of the fact in the eternal scheme of things is perhaps a shade more trivial than one is disposed to concede, but in any event, one is here; and here, for a very little while in youth, one is capable of happiness. For it is a colorful world, Mr. Townsend, containing much, upon the whole, to captivate both eye and taste; a world manured and fertilized by the no longer lovely bodies of persons who died in youth. Oh, their coffins lie everywhere beneath our feet, thick as raisins in a pudding, whithersoever we tread. Yet every one of these poor relics was once a boy or a girl, and wore a body that was capable of so much pleasure! To-day, unused to gain the fullness of that pleasure, and now not ever to be used, they lie beneath us, in their coffins, these white, straight bodies, like swords untried that rust in the scabbard. Meanwhile, on every side is apparent the not yet out-wasted instrument, and one is naturally inquisitive,—so that one's fingers and one's nostrils twitch at times, even in the hour when one is most miserable, very much as yours do now."
For a long while I meditated. Then I said: "I am not really miserable, because, all in all, one is content to pay the price of happiness. I have been very happy sometimes during the past year; and whatever the blind Fate that mismanages the world may elect to demand in payment, I shall not haggle. No, by heavens! I would have nothing changed, and least of all would I forget; having drunk nectar neat, one would not qualify it with the water of Lethe."
I rose, not unhandsome, I trusted, in the moonlight. I was hoping Mr. Charteris would notice my new dress-suit, procured in honor of Stella's wedding. And I said: "The play is over, the little comedy is played out. She must go; at least she has tarried for a little. She does not love you; ah! but she did. God speed her, then, the woman we have all loved and lost, and still dream of on sleepy Sundays; and all possible happiness to her! One must be grateful that through her one has known the glory of loving. Even though she never cared—'and never could understand',—one may not but be glad that one has known and loved in youth the Only Woman."
"The Only Woman has a way of leaving many heirs, Mr. Townsend, that play the deuce with the estate."
"—So to-morrow, like the person in Lycidas, I am for fresh fields, Mr. Charteris. And indeed it is high time that I were journeying, since she and I have rested, and have laughed and eaten and drunk our fill at this particular tavern; and now it is closing time. A plague on these foolish and impertinent laws, say I quite heartily; for it is cold and cheerless outside, whereas here within I was perfectly comfortable. None the less I must go, or else be evicted by the constable; so good-night, my sweet; and as for you, Madam Clotho, pray what unconscionable score have you chalked up against me?"
I grimaced. "Heavens! what an infinity of sighs, sonnets, lamentations, and heart-burnings is this that I owe to Fate and Decency!"
Charteris applauded as though it were a comedy. "In effect, Marian's married and you stand here, alive and merry at—pray what precise period of life, Mr. Townsend?"
"I confess to twenty-one at present, sir, though I trust to live it down in time."
"I would hardly have thought you that venerable. Well, I predict for you a life without achievements but of gusto. Yes, you will bring a seasoned palate to your grave,—and I envy you. We open Willoughby Hall next week, and of course you will make one of the party. For you write, I know; and you will want to talk to me about editors and read me all your damnable verses. Nothing could please me more. Good-night, you glorious boy."
And the little man wheeled and departed, leaving me to reflect, with appropriate emotions, that I had been formally invited to visit the founder of the Economist school of writers.
"He said it," I more lately observed—"yes, he undoubtedly said it. And he wrote Ashtaroth's Lackey and In Old Lichfield and The Foolish Prince, and he knows all the magazine editors personally, and they are probably only too glad to oblige him about anything, and—Oh, may be, it is only a dream, after all." My heart was pounding, but not with sorrow or despair or any other maudlin passion; and Stella was now as remote from my thoughts as was Joan of Arc or Pharaoh's daughter.
He Revisits Fairhaven and the Play
So I went to Willoughby Hall, which stands, as you may be aware, upon the eastern outskirt of Fairhaven. My reappearance created some stir among the older students and the town-folk, though, one and all, they presently declared me to be "too stuck-up for any use," inasmuch as I ignored them in favour of the Charteris house-party,—after, of course, one visit to Chapel, which I paid a little obviously en prince, and affably shook hands with all the Faculty, and was completely conscious of how such happenings impressed us when I, too, was a student.
So much had happened since then, and I felt so much older,—with my existence so delightfully blighted, too,—that it seemed droll to find Colonel Snawley and Dr. Jeal still sitting in arm chairs before Clarriker's Emporium, very much as I had left them there ten months ago.
By a disastrous chance did Bettie Hamlyn spend that spring, as well as the preceding year, in Colorado with her mother, who died there that summer; and to me Fairhaven proper without Bettie Hamlyn seemed a tawdry and desolate place; and I know that but for Mrs. Hamlyn's illness—a querulous woman for whom I never cared a jot,—my future life had been quite otherwise. For, as I told Bettie once, and it was true, I have found in the world but three sorts of humanity—"Myself, and Bettie Hamlyn, and the other people."
So I still wrote to Bettie Hamlyn on the seventh of every month— because that was her birthday,—and again on the twenty-third, because that was mine.
And I thought of many things as I walked by the deserted garden, where there was nothing which concerned me now, not even a ghost. I did not go in to leave a card upon Professor Hamlyn. The empty house confronted me too blankly, with its tight-shuttered windows, like blind eyes, and I hurried by.
Meanwhile, this was the first time for many years that Willoughby Hall had been occupied by any other than caretakers; and Fairhaven, to confess the truth, was a trifle ill-at-ease before the modish persons who now tenanted the old mansion; and consoled itself after an immemorial usage by backbiting.
And meanwhile I enjoyed myself tremendously. It was the first time I was ever thrown with people who were unanimously agreed that, after all, nothing is very serious. Mrs. Charteris, of course, was different; but she, like the others, found me divertingly naive and, in consequence, petted and cosseted me. I like petting; and since everyone seemed agreed to regard me as "the Child in the House"—that was Alicia Wade's nickname, and it clung,—and to like having a child in the house, I began a little to heighten my very real boyishness. There was no harm in it; and if people were fonder of me because I sat upon the floor by preference, and drolly exaggerated what I really thought, it became a sort of public duty to do these things. So I did, and found it astonishingly pleasant.
And meanwhile too, John Charteris could never see enough of me, whom, as I to-day suspect, Charteris was studying conscientiously, to the end that I should be converted into "copy." For me, I was waiting cannily until he should actually ask to see those manuscripts I had brought to Willoughby Hall, and should help me to get them published. So there were two of us.... In any event, it was just three weeks after Stella's marriage that Charteris coaxed me into Fairhaven's Opera House to witness a performance of Romeo and Juliet, by the Imperial Dramatic Company.
I went under protest; I had witnessed the butchery of so many dramas within these walls during my college days, that I knew what I must anticipate, I said. I had, as a matter of fact, always enjoyed the Opera House "shows," but I did not wish to acknowledge the harboring of such crude tastes to Charteris. In any event, at the conclusion of the second act,—
"By Jove!" said I, in a voice that shook a little. "She's a stunner!" I jolted out, as I proceeded to applaud, vigorously, with both hands and feet. "And who would have thought it! Good Lord, who would have thought it!"
Charteris smiled, in that infernally patronizing way he had sometimes. "A beautiful woman, my dear boy,—an inordinately beautiful woman, in fact, but entirely lacking in temperament."
"Temperament!" I scoffed; "what's temperament to two eyes like those? Why, they're as big as golf-balls! And her voice—why, a violin—a very superior violin—if it could talk, would have just such a voice as that woman has! Temperament! Oh, you make me ill! Why, man, just look at her!" I said, conclusively.
Charteris looked, I presume. In any event, the Juliet of the evening stood before the curtain, smiling, bowing to right and left. The citizens of Fairhaven were applauding her with a certain conscientious industry, for they really found Romeo and Juliet a rather dull couple. The general opinion, however, was that Miss Montmorenci seemed an elegant actress, and in some interesting play, like The Two Orphans or Lady Audley's Secret, would be well worth seeing. Upon those who had witnessed her initial performance, she had made a most favorable impression in The Lady of Lyons; while at the Tuesday matinee, as Lady Isabel in East Lynne, she had wrung the souls of her hearers, and had brought forth every handkerchief in the house. Moreover, she was very good-looking,—quite the lady, some said; and, after all, one cannot expect everything for twenty-five cents; considering which circumstances, Fairhaven applauded with temperate ardor, and made due allowance for Shakespeare as being a classic, and, therefore, of course, commendable, but not necessarily interesting.
"Well?" I queried, when she had vanished. I was speaking under cover of the orchestra,—a courtesy title accorded a very ancient and very feeble piano. "Well, and what do you think of her—of her looks, I means? Who cares for temperament in a woman!"
Charteris assumed a virtuous expression. "I don't dare tell you," said he; "you forget I am a married man."
Then I frowned a little. I often resented Charteris's flippant allusion to a wife whom I considered, with some reason, to be vastly too good for her husband. And I considered how near I had come to remaining with the others at Willoughby Hall—for that new game they called bridge-whist! And I decided I would never care for bridge. How on earth could presumably sensible people be content to coop themselves in a drawing-room on a warm May evening, when hardly a mile away was a woman with perfectly unfathomable eyes and a voice which was a love-song? Of course, she couldn't act, but, then, who wanted her to act? I indignantly demanded of my soul.
One simply wanted to look at her, and hear her speak. Charteris, with his prattle about temperament, was an ass; when a woman is born with such eyes and with a voice like that, she has done her full duty by the world, and has prodigally accomplished all one has the tiniest right to expect of her.
It was impossible she was in reality as beautiful as she seemed, because no woman was quite so beautiful as that; most of it was undoubtedly due to rouge and rice-powder and the footlights; but one could not be mistaken about the voice. And if her speech was that, what must her singing be! I thought; and in the outcome I remembered this reflection best of all.
I consulted my programme. It informed me, in large type at the end, that Juliet was "old Capulet's daughter," and that the part was played by Miss Annabelle Alys Montmorenci.
And I sighed. I admitted to myself that from a woman who wilfully assumed such a name little could be hoped. Still, I would like to see her off the stage...without all those gaudy fripperies and gewgaws...merely from curiosity.... Then too, they said those actresses were pretty gay....
"A most enjoyable performance," said Mr. Charteris, as we came out of the Opera House. "I have always had a sneaking liking for burlesque."
Thereupon he paused to shake hands with Mrs. Adrian Rabbet, wife to the rector of Fairhaven.
"Such a sad play," she chirped, "and, do you know, I am afraid it is rather demoralizing in its effects on young people. No, of course, I didn't think of bringing the children, Mr. Charteris—Shakespeare's language is not always sufficiently obscure, you know, to make that safe. And besides, as I so often say to Mr. Rabbet, it is sad to think of our greatest dramatist having been a drinking man. It quite depressed me all through the play to think of him hobnobbing with Dr. Johnson at the Tabard Inn, and making such irregular marriages, and stealing sheep—or was it sheep, now?"
I said that, as I remembered, it was a fox, which he hid under his cloak until the beast bit him.
"Well, at any rate, it was something extremely deplorable and characteristic of genius, and I quite feel for his wife." Mrs. Rabbet sighed, and endeavored, I think, to recollect whether it was Ingomar or Spartacus that Shakespeare wrote. "However," she concluded, "they play Ten Nights in a Barroom on Thursday, and I shall certainly bring the children then, for I am always glad for them to see a really moral and instructive drama. That reminds me! I absolutely must tell you what Tom said about actors the other day—"
And she did. This led naturally to Matilda's recent and blasphemous comments on George Washington, and her observations as to the rector's dog, and little Adey's personal opinion of Elisha. And so on, in a manner not unfamiliar to fond parents. Mrs. Rabbet said toward the end that it was a most enjoyable chat, although to me it appeared to partake rather of the nature of a monologue. It consumed perhaps a half-hour; and when we two at last relinquished Mrs. Rabbet to her husband's charge, it was with a feeling not altogether unakin to relief.
We walked slowly down Fairhaven's one real street, which extends due east from the College for as much as a mile, to end inconsequently in those carefully preserved foundations, which are now the only remnant of a building wherein a number of important matters were settled in Colonial days. There Cambridge Street divides like a Y, one branch of which leads to Willoughby Hall.
Our route from the Opera House thus led through the major part of Fairhaven, which, after an evening of unwonted dissipation, was now largely employed in discussing the play, and turning the cat out for the night. The houses were mostly dark, and the moon, nearing its full, silvered row after row of blank windows. There was an odour of growing things about, for in Fairhaven the gardens are many.
Then it befell that I made a sudden exclamation.
"Eh?" said Charteris.
"Why, nothing," I explained, lucidly.
It may be mentioned, however, that we were, at this moment, passing a tall hedge of box, set about a large garden. The hedge was perhaps five feet six in height; Charteris was also five feet six, whereas I was an unusually tall young man, and topped my host by a good half-foot.
"I say," I observed, after a little, "I'm all out of cigarettes. I'll go back to the drug-store," I suggested, as seized with a happy thought, "and get some. I noticed it was still open. Don't think of waiting for me," I urged, considerately.
"Why, great heavens!" Charteris ejaculated; "take one of mine. I can recommend them, I assure you—and, in any event, there are all sorts, I fancy, at the house. They keep only the rankest kind of domestic tobacco yonder."
"I prefer it," I insisted, "oh, yes, I really prefer it. So much milder and more wholesome, you know. I never smoke any other sort. My doctor insists on my smoking the very rankest tobacco I can get. It is much better for the heart, he says, because you don't smoke so much of it, you know. Besides," I concluded, virtuously, "it is infinitely cheaper; you can get twenty cigarettes all for five cents at some places. I really must economize, I think."
Charteris turned, and with great care stared in every direction. He discovered nothing unusual. "Very well!" assented Mr. Charteris; "I, too, have an eye for bargains. I will go with you."
"If you do alive," quoth I, quite honestly, "I devoutly desire that all sorts of unpleasant things may happen to me for not having wrung your neck first."
Charteris grinned. "Immoral young rip!" said he; "I warn you, before entering the ministry, Mr. Rabbet was accounted an excellent shot."
"Get out!" said I.
And the fervour of my utterance was such that Charteris proceeded to obey. "Don't be late for breakfast, if you can help it," he urged, kindly. "Of course, though, you are up to some new form of insanity, and I shall probably be sent for in the morning, to bail you out of the lock-up."
Thereupon he turned on his heel, and went down the deserted street, singing sweetly.
Sang Mr. Charteris:
"Curly gold locks cover foolish brains, Billing and cooing is all your cheer, Sighing and singing of midnight strains Under bonnybells" window-panes. Wait till you've come to forty year!
"Forty times over let Michaelmas pass, Grizzling hair the brain doth clear; Then you know a boy is an ass, Then you know the worth of a lass, Once you have come to forty-year."
He Chats Over a Hedge
Left to myself, I began to retrace my steps. Solitude had mitigated my craving for tobacco in a surprising manner; indeed, a casual observer might have thought it completely forgotten, for I walked with curious leisure. When I had come again to the box-hedge my pace had degenerated, a little by a little, into an aimless lounge. Mr. Robert Etheridge Townsend was rapt with admiration of the perfect beauty of the night.
Followed a strange chance. There was only the mildest breeze about; it was barely audible among the leaves above; and yet—so unreliable are the breezes of still summer nights,—with a sudden, tiny and almost imperceptible outburst, did this treacherous breeze lift Mr. Townsend's brand-new straw hat from his head, and waft it over the hedge of trim box-bushes. This was unfortunate, for, as has been said, the hedge was a tall and sturdy hedge. So I peeped over it, with disconsolate countenance.
"Beastly awkward," said I, as meditatively; "I'd give a great deal to know how I'm going to get my hat back without breaking through the blessed hedge, and rousing the house, and being taken for a burglar, may be—"
"It is terrible," assented a quite tranquil voice; "but if gentlemen will venture abroad on such terrible nights—"
"Eh?" said I. I looked up quickly at the moon; then back toward the possessor of the voice. It was peculiar I had not noticed her before, for she sat on a rustic bench not more than forty feet away, and in full view of the street. It was, perhaps, the strangeness of the affair that was accountable for the great wonder in my soul; and the little tremor which woke in my speech.
"—so windy," she complained.
"Er—ah—yes, quite so!" I agreed, hastily.
"I am really afraid that it must be a tornado. Ah," she continued, emotion catching at her voice, "heaven help all poor souls at sea! How the wind must whistle through the cordage! how the marlin-spikes must quiver, and the good ship reel on such a night!" She looked up at a cloudless sky, and sighed.
"Er h'm!" I observed.
For she had come forward and had held out my hat toward me, and I could see her very plainly now; and my mouth was making foolish sounds, and my heart was performing certain curious and varied gymnastics which could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be included among its proper duties, and which interfered with my breathing.
"Didn't I know it—didn't I know it?" I demanded of my soul, and my pulses sang a paean; "I knew, with that voice, she couldn't be a common actress—a vulgar, raddled creature out of a barn! You not a gentlewoman! Nonsense! Why—why, you're positively incredible! Oh, you great, wonderful, lazy woman, you are probably very stupid, and you certainly can't act, but your eyes are black velvet, and your voice is evidently stolen from a Cremona, and as for your hair, there must be pounds of it, and, altogether, you ought to be set up on a pedestal for men to worship! There is just one other woman in the whole wide world as beautiful as you are; and she is two thousand years old, and is securely locked up in the Louvre, and belongs to the French Government, and, besides, she hasn't any arms, so that even there you have the advantage!"
Indeed, Miss Annabelle Alys Montmorenci was of much the same large, placid type as the Venus of Milo, nor were the upper portions of the two faces dissimilar. Miss Montmorenci's lips, however, were far more curved, more buxom, and were, at the present moment, bordered by an absolutely bewildering assemblage of dimples which the statue may not boast.
"I really think," said Miss Montmorenci, judicially, "that it would be best for you to seek some shelter from this devastating wind. It really is not safe, you know, in the open. You might be swept away, just as your hat was."