Story type: Literature
“And I–what I seem to my friend, you see–
What I soon shall seem to his love, you guess.
What I seem to myself, do you ask of me?
No hero, I confess.”
A Light Woman.–Browning’s Men and Women.
April 4, 1857.–I have changed my sky without changing my mind. I resume these old notes in a new world. I hardly know of what use they are; but it’s easier to stick to the habit than to drop it. I have been at home now a week–at home, forsooth! And yet, after all, it is home. I am dejected, I am bored, I am blue. How can a man be more at home than that? Nevertheless, I am the citizen of a great country, and for that matter, of a great city. I walked to-day some ten miles or so along Broadway, and on the whole I don’t blush for my native land. We are a capable race and a good-looking withal; and I don’t see why we shouldn’t prosper as well as another. This, by the way, ought to be a very encouraging reflection. A capable fellow and a good-looking withal; I don’t see why he shouldn’t die a millionaire. At all events he must do something. When a man has, at thirty-two, a net income of considerably less than nothing, he can scarcely hope to overtake a fortune before he himself is overtaken by age and philosophy–two deplorable obstructions. I am afraid that one of them has already planted itself in my path. What am I? What do I wish? Whither do I tend? What do I believe? I am constantly beset by these impertinent whisperings. Formerly it was enough that I was Maximus Austin; that I was endowed with a cheerful mind and a good digestion; that one day or another, when I had come to the end, I should return to America and begin at the beginning; that, meanwhile, existence was sweet in–in the Rue Tronchet. But now! Has the sweetness really passed out of life? Have I eaten the plums and left nothing but the bread and milk and corn-starch, or whatever the horrible concoction is?–I had it to-day for dinner. Pleasure, at least, I imagine–pleasure pure and simple, pleasure crude, brutal and vulgar–this poor flimsy delusion has lost all its charm. I shall never again care for certain things–and indeed for certain persons. Of such things, of such persons, I firmly maintain, however, that I was never an enthusiastic votary. It would be more to my credit, I suppose, if I had been. More would be forgiven me if I had loved a little more, if into all my folly and egotism I had put a little more naivete and sincerity. Well, I did the best I could, I was at once too bad and too good for it all. At present, it’s far enough off; I have put the sea between us; I am stranded. I sit high and dry, scanning the horizon for a friendly sail, or waiting for a high tide to set me afloat. The wave of pleasure has deposited me here in the sand. Shall I owe my rescue to the wave of pain? At moments I feel a kind of longing to expiate my stupid little sins. I see, as through a glass, darkly, the beauty of labor and love. Decidedly, I am willing to work. It’s written.
7th.–My sail is in sight; it’s at hand; I have all but boarded the vessel. I received this morning a letter from the best man in the world. Here it is:
DEAR MAX: I see this very moment, in an old newspaper which had
already passed through my hands without yielding up its most
precious item, the announcement of your arrival in New York. To
think of your having perhaps missed the welcome you had a right to
expect from me! Here it is, dear Max–as cordial as you please.
When I say I have just read of your arrival, I mean that twenty
minutes have elapsed by the clock. These have been spent in
conversation with my excellent friend Mr. Sloane–we having taken
the liberty of making you the topic. I haven’t time to say more
about Frederick Sloane than that he is very anxious to make your
acquaintance, and that, if your time is not otherwise engaged, he
would like you very much to spend a month with him. He is an
excellent host, or I shouldn’t be here myself. It appears that he
knew your mother very intimately, and he has a taste for visiting
the amenities of the parents upon the children; the original ground
of my own connection with him was that he had been a particular
friend of my father. You may have heard your mother speak of him.
He is a very strange old fellow, but you will like him. Whether or
no you come for his sake, come for mine.
Theodore’s letter is of course very kind, but it’s remarkably obscure. My mother may have had the highest regard for Mr. Sloane, but she never mentioned his name in my hearing. Who is he, what is he, and what is the nature of his relations with Theodore? I shall learn betimes. I have written to Theodore that I gladly accept (I believe I suppressed the “gladly” though) his friend’s invitation, and that I shall immediately present myself. What can I do that is better? Speaking sordidly, I shall obtain food and lodging while I look about me. I shall have a base of operations. D., it appears, is a long day’s journey, but enchanting when you reach it. I am curious to see an enchanting American town. And to stay a month! Mr. Frederick Sloane, whoever you are, vous faites bien les choses, and the little that I know of you is very much to your credit. You enjoyed the friendship of my dear mother, you possess the esteem of the virtuous Theodore, you commend yourself to my own affection. At this rate, I shall not grudge it.
D–, 14th.–I have been here since Thursday evening–three days. As we rattled up to the tavern in the village, I perceived from the top of the coach, in the twilight, Theodore beneath the porch, scanning the vehicle, with all his amiable disposition in his eyes. He has grown older, of course, in these five years, but less so than I had expected. His is one of those smooth, unwrinkled souls that keep their bodies fair and fresh. As tall as ever, moreover, and as lean and clean. How short and fat and dark and debauched he makes one feel! By nothing he says or means, of course, but merely by his old unconscious purity and simplicity–that slender straightness which makes him remind you of the spire of an English abbey. He greeted me with smiles, and stares, and alarming blushes. He assures me that he never would have known me, and that five years have altered me–sehr! I asked him if it were for the better? He looked at me hard for a moment, with his eyes of blue, and then, for an answer, he blushed again.
On my arrival we agreed to walk over from the village. He dismissed his wagon with my luggage, and we went arm-in-arm through the dusk. The town is seated at the foot of certain mountains, whose names I have yet to learn, and at the head of a big sheet of water, which, as yet, too, I know only as “the Lake.” The road hitherward soon leaves the village and wanders in rural loveliness by the margin of this expanse. Sometimes the water is hidden by clumps of trees, behind which we heard it lapping and gurgling in the darkness: sometimes it stretches out from your feet in shining vagueness, as if it were tired of making, all day, a million little eyes at the great stupid hills. The walk from the tavern takes some half an hour, and in this interval Theodore made his position a little more clear. Mr. Sloane is a rich old widower; his age is seventy-two, and as his health is thoroughly broken, is practically even greater; and his fortune–Theodore, characteristically, doesn’t know anything definite about that. It’s probably about a million. He has lived much in Europe, and in the “great world;” he has had adventures and passions and all that sort of thing; and now, in the evening of his days, like an old French diplomatist, he takes it into his head to write his memoirs. To this end he has lured poor Theodore to his gruesome side, to mend his pens for him. He has been a great scribbler, says Theodore, all his days, and he proposes to incorporate a large amount of promiscuous literary matter into these souvenirs intimes. Theodore’s principal function seems to be to get him to leave things out. In fact, the poor youth seems troubled in conscience. His patron’s lucubrations have taken the turn of many other memoirs, and have ceased to address themselves virginibus puerisque. On the whole, he declares they are a very odd mixture–a medley of gold and tinsel, of bad taste and good sense. I can readily understand it. The old man bores me, puzzles me, and amuses me.
He was in waiting to receive me. We found him in his library–which, by the way, is simply the most delightful apartment that I ever smoked a cigar in–a room arranged for a lifetime. At one end stands a great fireplace, with a florid, fantastic mantelpiece in carved white marble–an importation, of course, and, as one may say, an interpolation; the groundwork of the house, the “fixtures,” being throughout plain, solid and domestic. Over the mantel-shelf is a large landscape, a fine Gainsborough, full of the complicated harmonies of an English summer. Beneath it stands a row of bronzes of the Renaissance and potteries of the Orient. Facing the door, as you enter, is an immense window set in a recess, with cushioned seats and large clear panes, stationed as it were at the very apex of the lake (which forms an almost perfect oval) and commanding a view of its whole extent. At the other end, opposite the fireplace, the wall is studded, from floor to ceiling, with choice foreign paintings, placed in relief against the orthodox crimson screen. Elsewhere the walls are covered with books, arranged neither in formal regularity nor quite helter-skelter, but in a sort of genial incongruity, which tells that sooner or later each volume feels sure of leaving the ranks and returning into different company. Mr. Sloane makes use of his books. His two passions, according to Theodore, are reading and talking; but to talk he must have a book in his hand. The charm of the room lies in the absence of certain pedantic tones–the browns, blacks and grays–which distinguish most libraries. The apartment is of the feminine gender. There are half a dozen light colors scattered about–pink in the carpet, tender blue in the curtains, yellow in the chairs. The result is a general look of brightness and lightness; it expresses even a certain cynicism. You perceive the place to be the home, not of a man of learning, but of a man of fancy.
He rose from his chair–the man of fancy, to greet me–the man of fact. As I looked at him, in the lamplight, it seemed to me, for the first five minutes, that I had seldom seen an uglier little person. It took me five minutes to get the point of view; then I began to admire. He is diminutive, or at best of my own moderate stature, and bent and contracted with his seventy years; lean and delicate, moreover, and very highly finished. He is curiously pale, with a kind of opaque yellow pallor. Literally, it’s a magnificent yellow. His skin is of just the hue and apparent texture of some old crumpled Oriental scroll. I know a dozen painters who would give more than they have to arrive at the exact “tone” of his thick-veined, bloodless hands, his polished ivory knuckles. His eyes are circled with red, but in the battered little setting of their orbits they have the lustre of old sapphires. His nose, owing to the falling away of other portions of his face, has assumed a grotesque, unnatural prominence; it describes an immense arch, gleaming like a piece of parchment stretched on ivory. He has, apparently, all his teeth, but has muffled his cranium in a dead black wig; of course he’s clean shaven. In his dress he has a muffled, wadded look and an apparent aversion to linen, inasmuch as none is visible on his person. He seems neat enough, but not fastidious. At first, as I say, I fancied him monstrously ugly; but on further acquaintance I perceived that what I had taken for ugliness is nothing but the incomplete remains of remarkable good looks. The line of his features is pure; his nose, caeteris paribus, would be extremely handsome; his eyes are the oldest eyes I ever saw, and yet they are wonderfully living. He has something remarkably insinuating.
He offered his two hands, as Theodore introduced me; I gave him my own, and he stood smiling at me like some quaint old image in ivory and ebony, scanning my face with a curiosity which he took no pains to conceal. “God bless me,” he said, at last, “how much you look like your father!” I sat down, and for half an hour we talked of many things–of my journey, of my impressions of America, of my reminiscences of Europe, and, by implication, of my prospects. His voice is weak and cracked, but he makes it express everything. Mr. Sloane is not yet in his dotage–oh no! He nevertheless makes himself out a poor creature. In reply to an inquiry of mine about his health, he favored me with a long list of his infirmities (some of which are very trying, certainly) and assured me that he was quite finished.
“I live out of mere curiosity,” he said.
“I have heard of people dying from the same motive.”
He looked at me a moment, as if to ascertain whether I were laughing at him. And then, after a pause, “Perhaps you don’t know that I disbelieve in a future life,” he remarked, blandly.
At these words Theodore got up and walked to the fire.
“Well, we shan’t quarrel about that,” said I. Theodore turned round, staring.
“Do you mean that you agree with me?” the old man asked.
“I certainly haven’t come here to talk theology! Don’t ask me to disbelieve, and I’ll never ask you to believe.”
“Come,” cried Mr. Sloane, rubbing his hands, “you’ll not persuade me you are a Christian–like your friend Theodore there.”
“Like Theodore–assuredly not.” And then, somehow, I don’t know why, at the thought of Theodore’s Christianity I burst into a laugh. “Excuse me, my dear fellow,” I said, “you know, for the last ten years I have lived in pagan lands.”
“What do you call pagan?” asked Theodore, smiling.
I saw the old man, with his hands locked, eying me shrewdly, and waiting for my answer. I hesitated a moment, and then I said, “Everything that makes life tolerable!”
Hereupon Mr. Sloane began to laugh till he coughed. Verily, I thought, if he lives for curiosity, he’s easily satisfied.
We went into dinner, and this repast showed me that some of his curiosity is culinary. I observed, by the way, that for a victim of neuralgia, dyspepsia, and a thousand other ills, Mr. Sloane plies a most inconsequential knife and fork. Sauces and spices and condiments seem to be the chief of his diet. After dinner he dismissed us, in consideration of my natural desire to see my friend in private. Theodore has capital quarters–a downy bedroom and a snug little salon. We talked till near midnight–of ourselves, of each other, and of the author of the memoirs, down stairs. That is, I spoke of myself, and Theodore listened; and then Theodore descanted upon Mr. Sloane, and I listened. His commerce with the old man has sharpened his wits. Sloane has taught him to observe and judge, and Theodore turns round, observes, judges–him! He has become quite the critic and analyst. There is something very pleasant in the discriminations of a conscientious mind, in which criticism is tempered by an angelic charity. Only, it may easily end by acting on one’s nerves. At midnight we repaired to the library, to take leave of our host till the morrow–an attention which, under all circumstances, he rigidly exacts. As I gave him my hand he held it again and looked at me as he had done on my arrival. “Bless my soul,” he said, at last, “how much you look like your mother!”
To-night, at the end of my third day, I begin to feel decidedly at home. The fact is, I am remarkably comfortable. The house is pervaded by an indefinable, irresistible love of luxury and privacy. Mr. Frederick Sloane is a horribly corrupt old mortal. Already in his relaxing presence I have become heartily reconciled to doing nothing. But with Theodore on one side–standing there like a tall interrogation-point–I honestly believe I can defy Mr. Sloane on the other. The former asked me this morning, with visible solicitude, in allusion to the bit of dialogue I have quoted above on matters of faith, whether I am really a materialist–whether I don’t believe something? I told him I would believe anything he liked. He looked at me a while, in friendly sadness. “I hardly know whether you are not worse than Mr. Sloane,” he said.
But Theodore is, after all, in duty bound to give a man a long rope in these matters. His own rope is one of the longest. He reads Voltaire with Mr. Sloane, and Emerson in his own room. He is the stronger man of the two; he has the larger stomach. Mr. Sloane delights, of course, in Voltaire, but he can’t read a line of Emerson. Theodore delights in Emerson, and enjoys Voltaire, though he thinks him superficial. It appears that since we parted in Paris, five years ago, his conscience has dwelt in many lands. C’est tout une histoire–which he tells very prettily. He left college determined to enter the church, and came abroad with his mind full of theology and Tuebingen. He appears to have studied, not wisely but too well. Instead of faith full-armed and serene, there sprang from the labor of his brain a myriad sickly questions, piping for answers. He went for a winter to Italy, where, I take it, he was not quite so much afflicted as he ought to have been at the sight of the beautiful spiritual repose that he had missed. It was after this that we spent those three months together in Brittany–the best-spent months of my long residence in Europe. Theodore inoculated me, I think, with some of his seriousness, and I just touched him with my profanity; and we agreed together that there were a few good things left–health, friendship, a summer sky, and the lovely byways of an old French province. He came home, searched the Scriptures once more, accepted a “call,” and made an attempt to respond to it. But the inner voice failed him. His outlook was cheerless enough. During his absence his married sister, the elder one, had taken the other to live with her, relieving Theodore of the charge of contribution to her support. But suddenly, behold the husband, the brother-in-law, dies, leaving a mere figment of property; and the two ladies, with their two little girls, are afloat in the wide world. Theodore finds himself at twenty-six without an income, without a profession, and with a family of four females to support. Well, in his quiet way he draws on his courage. The history of the two years that passed before he came to Mr. Sloane is really absolutely edifying. He rescued his sisters and nieces from the deep waters, placed them high and dry, established them somewhere in decent gentility–and then found at last that his strength had left him–had dropped dead like an over-ridden horse. In short, he had worked himself to the bone. It was now his sisters’ turn. They nursed him with all the added tenderness of gratitude for the past and terror of the future, and brought him safely through a grievous malady. Meanwhile Mr. Sloane, having decided to treat himself to a private secretary and suffered dreadful mischance in three successive experiments, had heard of Theodore’s situation and his merits; had furthermore recognized in him the son of an early and intimate friend, and had finally offered him the very comfortable position he now occupies. There is a decided incongruity between Theodore as a man–as Theodore, in fine–and the dear fellow as the intellectual agent, confidant, complaisant, purveyor, pander–what you will–of a battered old cynic and dilettante–a worldling if there ever was one. There seems at first sight a perfect want of agreement between his character and his function. One is gold and the other brass, or something very like it. But on reflection I can enter into it–his having, under the circumstances, accepted Mr. Sloane’s offer and been content to do his duties. Ce que c’est de nous! Theodore’s contentment in such a case is a theme for the moralist–a better moralist than I. The best and purest mortals are an odd mixture, and in none of us does honesty exist on its own terms. Ideally, Theodore hasn’t the smallest business dans cette galere. It offends my sense of propriety to find him here. I feel that I ought to notify him as a friend that he has knocked at the wrong door, and that he had better retreat before he is brought to the blush. However, I suppose he might as well be here as reading Emerson “evenings” in the back parlor, to those two very plain sisters–judging from their photographs. Practically it hurts no one not to be too much of a prig. Poor Theodore was weak, depressed, out of work. Mr. Sloane offers him a lodging and a salary in return for–after all, merely a little tact. All he has to do is to read to the old man, lay down the book a while, with his finger in the place, and let him talk; take it up again, read another dozen pages and submit to another commentary. T
hen to write a dozen pages under his dictation–to suggest a word, polish off a period, or help him out with a complicated idea or a half-remembered fact. This is all, I say; and yet this is much. Theodore’s apparent success proves it to be much, as well as the old man’s satisfaction. It is a part; he has to simulate. He has to “make believe” a little–a good deal; he has to put his pride in his pocket and send his conscience to the wash. He has to be accommodating–to listen and pretend and flatter; and he does it as well as many a worse man–does it far better than I. I might bully the old man, but I don’t think I could humor him. After all, however, it is not a matter of comparative merit. In every son of woman there are two men–the practical man and the dreamer. We live for our dreams–but, meanwhile, we live by our wits. When the dreamer is a poet, the other fellow is an artist. Theodore, at bottom, is only a man of taste. If he were not destined to become a high priest among moralists, he might be a prince among connoisseurs. He plays his part, therefore, artistically, with spirit, with originality, with all his native refinement. How can Mr. Sloane fail to believe that he possesses a paragon? He is no such fool as not to appreciate a nature distinguee when it comes in his way. He confidentially assured me this morning that Theodore has the most charming mind in the world, but that it’s a pity he’s so simple as not to suspect it. If he only doesn’t ruin him with his flattery!
19th.–I am certainly fortunate among men. This morning when, tentatively, I spoke of going away, Mr. Sloane rose from his seat in horror and declared that for the present I must regard his house as my home. “Come, come,” he said, “when you leave this place where do you intend to go?” Where, indeed? I graciously allowed Mr. Sloane to have the best of the argument. Theodore assures me that he appreciates these and other affabilities, and that I have made what he calls a “conquest” of his venerable heart. Poor, battered, bamboozled old organ! he would have one believe that it has a most tragical record of capture and recapture. At all events, it appears that I am master of the citadel. For the present I have no wish to evacuate. I feel, nevertheless, in some far-off corner of my soul, that I ought to shoulder my victorious banner and advance to more fruitful triumphs.
I blush for my beastly laziness. It isn’t that I am willing to stay here a month, but that I am willing to stay here six. Such is the charming, disgusting truth. Have I really outlived the age of energy? Have I survived my ambition, my integrity, my self-respect? Verily, I ought to have survived the habit of asking myself silly questions. I made up my mind long ago to go in for nothing but present success; and I don’t care for that sufficiently to secure it at the cost of temporary suffering. I have a passion for nothing–not even for life. I know very well the appearance I make in the world. I pass for a clever, accomplished, capable, good-natured fellow, who can do anything if he would only try. I am supposed to be rather cultivated, to have latent talents. When I was younger I used to find a certain entertainment in the spectacle of human affairs. I liked to see men and women hurrying on each other’s heels across the stage. But I am sick and tired of them now; not that I am a misanthrope, God forbid! They are not worth hating. I never knew but one creature who was, and her I went and loved. To be consistent, I ought to have hated my mother, and now I ought to detest Theodore. But I don’t–truly, on the whole, I don’t–any more than I dote on him. I firmly believe that it makes a difference to him, his idea that I am fond of him. He believes in that, as he believes in all the rest of it–in my culture, my latent talents, my underlying “earnestness,” my sense of beauty and love of truth. Oh, for a man among them all–a fellow with eyes in his head–eyes that would know me for what I am and let me see they had guessed it. Possibly such a fellow as that might get a “rise” out of me.
In the name of bread and butter, what am I to do? (I was obliged this morning to borrow fifty dollars from Theodore, who remembered gleefully that he has been owing me a trifling sum for the past four years, and in fact has preserved a note to this effect.) Within the last week I have hatched a desperate plan: I have made up my mind to take a wife–a rich one, bien entendu. Why not accept the goods of the gods? It is not my fault, after all, if I pass for a good fellow. Why not admit that practically, mechanically–as I may say–maritally, I may be a good fellow? I warrant myself kind. I should never beat my wife; I don’t think I should even contradict her. Assume that her fortune has the proper number of zeros and that she herself is one of them, and I can even imagine her adoring me. I really think this is my only way. Curiously, as I look back upon my brief career, it all seems to tend to this consummation. It has its graceful curves and crooks, indeed, and here and there a passionate tangent; but on the whole, if I were to unfold it here a la Hogarth, what better legend could I scrawl beneath the series of pictures than So-and-So’s Progress to a Mercenary Marriage?
Coming events do what we all know with their shadows. My noble fate is, perhaps, not far off. I already feel throughout my person a magnificent languor–as from the possession of many dollars. Or is it simply my sense of well-being in this perfectly appointed house? Is it simply the contact of the highest civilization I have known? At all events, the place is of velvet, and my only complaint of Mr. Sloane is that, instead of an old widower, he’s not an old widow (or a young maid), so that I might marry him, survive him, and dwell forever in this rich and mellow home. As I write here, at my bedroom table, I have only to stretch out an arm and raise the window-curtain to see the thick-planted garden budding and breathing and growing in the silvery silence. Far above in the liquid darkness rolls the brilliant ball of the moon; beneath, in its light, lies the lake, in murmuring, troubled sleep; round about, the mountains, looking strange and blanched, seem to bare their heads and undrape their shoulders. So much for midnight. To-morrow the scene will be lovely with the beauty of day. Under one aspect or another I have it always before me. At the end of the garden is moored a boat, in which Theodore and I have indulged in an immense deal of irregular navigation. What lovely landward coves and bays–what alder-smothered creeks–what lily-sheeted pools–what sheer steep hillsides, making the water dark and quiet where they hang. I confess that in these excursions Theodore looks after the boat and I after the scenery. Mr. Sloane avoids the water–on account of the dampness, he says; because he’s afraid of drowning, I suspect.
22d.–Theodore is right. The bonhomme has taken me into his favor. I protest I don’t see how he was to escape it. Je l’ai bien soigne, as they say in Paris. I don’t blush for it. In one coin or another I must repay his hospitality–which is certainly very liberal. Theodore dots his i‘s, crosses his t‘s, verifies his quotations; while I set traps for that famous “curiosity.” This speaks vastly well for my powers. He pretends to be surprised at nothing, and to possess in perfection–poor, pitiable old fop–the art of keeping his countenance; but repeatedly, I know, I have made him stare. As for his corruption, which I spoke of above, it’s a very pretty piece of wickedness, but it strikes me as a purely intellectual matter. I imagine him never to have had any real senses. He may have been unclean; morally, he’s not very tidy now; but he never can have been what the French call a viveur. He’s too delicate, he’s of a feminine turn; and what woman was ever a viveur? He likes to sit in his chair and read scandal, talk scandal, make scandal, so far as he may without catching a cold or bringing on a headache. I already feel as if I had known him a lifetime. I read him as clearly as if I had. I know the type to which he belongs; I have encountered, first and last, a good many specimens of it. He’s neither more nor less than a gossip–a gossip flanked by a coxcomb and an egotist. He’s shallow, vain, cold, superstitious, timid, pretentious, capricious: a pretty list of foibles! And yet, for all this, he has his good points. His caprices are sometimes generous, and his rebellion against the ugliness of life frequently makes him do kind things. His memory (for trifles) is remarkable, and (where his own performances are not involved) his taste is excellent. He has no courage for evil more than for good. He is the victim, however, of more illusions with regard to himself than I ever knew a single brain to shelter. At the age of twenty, poor, ignorant and remarkably handsome, he married a woman of immense wealth, many years his senior. At the end of three years she very considerately took herself off and left him to the enjoyment of his freedom and riches. If he had remained poor he might from time to time have rubbed at random against the truth, and would be able to recognize the touch of it. But he wraps himself in his money as in a wadded dressing-gown, and goes trundling through life on his little gold wheels. The greater part of his career, from the time of his marriage till about ten years ago, was spent in Europe, which, superficially, he knows very well. He has lived in fifty places, known thousands of people, and spent a very large fortune. At one time, I believe, he spent considerably too much, trembled for an instant on the verge of a pecuniary crash, but recovered himself, and found himself more frightened than hurt, yet audibly recommended to lower his pitch. He passed five years in a species of penitent seclusion on the lake of–I forget what (his genius seems to be partial to lakes), and laid the basis of his present magnificent taste for literature. I can’t call him anything but magnificent in this respect, so long as he must have his punctuation done by a nature distinguee. At the close of this period, by economy, he had made up his losses. His turning the screw during those relatively impecunious years represents, I am pretty sure, the only act of resolution of his life. It was rendered possible by his morbid, his actually pusillanimous dread of poverty; he doesn’t feel safe without half a million between him and starvation. Meanwhile he had turned from a young man into an old man; his health was broken, his spirit was jaded, and I imagine, to do him justice, that he began to feel certain natural, filial longings for this dear American mother of us all. They say the most hopeless truants and triflers have come to it. He came to it, at all events; he packed up his books and pictures and gimcracks, and bade farewell to Europe. This house which he now occupies belonged to his wife’s estate. She had, for sentimental reasons of her own, commended it to his particular care. On his return he came to see it, liked it, turned a parcel of carpenters and upholsterers into it, and by inhabiting it for nine years transformed it into the perfect dwelling which I find it. Here he has spent all his time, with the exception of a usual winter’s visit to New York–a practice recently discontinued, owing to the increase of his ailments and the projection of these famous memoirs. His life has finally come to be passed in comparative solitude. He tells of various distant relatives, as well as intimate friends of both sexes, who used formerly to be entertained at his cost; but with each of them, in the course of time, he seems to have succeeded in quarrelling. Throughout life, evidently, he has had capital fingers for plucking off parasites. Rich, lonely, and vain, he must have been fair game for the race of social sycophants and cormorants; and it’s much to the credit of his sharpness and that instinct of self-defence which nature bestows even on the weak, that he has not been despoiled and exploite. Apparently they have all been bunglers. I maintain that something is to be done with him still. But one must work in obedience to certain definite laws. Doctor Jones, his physician, tells me that in point of fact he has had for the past ten years an unbroken series of favorites, proteges, heirs presumptive; but that each, in turn, by some fatally false movement, has spilled his pottage. The doctor declares, moreover, that they were mostly very common people. Gradually the old man seems to have developed a preference for two or three strictly exquisite intimates, over a throng of your vulgar pensioners. His tardy literary schemes, too–fruit of his all but sapless senility–have absorbed more and more of his time and attention. The end of it all is, therefore, that Theodore and I have him quite to ourselves, and that it behooves us to hold our porringers straight.
Poor, pretentious old simpleton! It’s not his fault, after all, that he fancies himself a great little man. How are you to judge of the stature of mankind when men have forever addressed you on their knees? Peace and joy to his innocent fatuity! He believes himself the most rational of men; in fact, he’s the most superstitious. He fancies himself a philosopher, an inquirer, a discoverer. He has not yet discovered that he is a humbug, that Theodore is a prig, and that I am an adventurer. He prides himself on his good manners, his urbanity, his knowing a rule of conduct for every occasion in life. My private impression is that his skinny old bosom contains unsuspected treasures of impertinence. He takes his stand on his speculative audacity–his direct, undaunted gaze at the universe; in truth, his mind is haunted by a hundred dingy old-world spectres and theological phantasms. He imagines himself one of the most solid of men; he is essentially one of the hollowest. He thinks himself ardent, impulsive, passionate, magnanimous–capable of boundless enthusiasm for an idea or a sentiment. It is clear to me that on no occasion of disinterested action can he ever have done anything in time. He believes, finally, that he has drained the cup of life to the dregs; that he has known, in its bitterest intensity, every emotion of which the human spirit is capable; that he has loved, struggled, suffered. Mere vanity, all of it. He has never loved any one but himself; he has never suffered from anything but an undigested supper or an exploded pretension; he has never touched with the end of his lips the vulgar bowl from which the mass of mankind quaffs its floods of joy and sorrow. Well, the long and short of it all is, that I honestly pity him. He may have given sly knocks in his life, but he can’t hurt any one now. I pity his ignorance, his weakness, his pusillanimity. He has tasted the real sweetness of life no more than its bitterness; he has never dreamed, nor experimented, nor dared; he has never known any but mercenary affection; neither men nor women have risked aught for him–for his good spirits, his good looks, his empty pockets. How I should like to give him, for once, a real sensation!
26th.–I took a row this morning with Theodore a couple of miles along the lake, to a point where we went ashore and lounged away an hour in the sunshine, which is still very comfortable. Poor Theodore seems troubled about many things. For one, he is troubled about me: he is actually more anxious about my future than I myself; he thinks better of me than I do of myself; he is so deucedly conscientious, so scrupulous, so averse to giving offence or to brusquer any situation before it has played itself out, that he shrinks from betraying his apprehensions or asking direct questions. But I know that he would like very much to extract from me some intimation that there is something under the sun I should like to do. I catch myself in the act of taking–heaven forgive me!–a half-malignant joy in confounding his expectations–leading his generous sympathies off the scent by giving him momentary glimpses of my latent wickedness. But in Theodore I have so firm a friend that I shall have a considerable job if I ever find it needful to make him change his mind about me. He admires me–that’s absolute; he takes my low moral tone for an eccentricity of genius, and it only imparts an extra flavor–a haut gout–to the charm of my intercourse. Nevertheless, I can see that he is disappointed. I have even less to show, after all these years, than he had hoped. Heaven help us! little enough it must strike him as being. What a contradiction there is in our being friends at all! I believe we shall end with hating each other. It’s all very well now–our agreeing to differ, for we haven’t opposed interests. But if we should really clash, the situation would be warm! I wonder, as it is, that Theodore keeps his patience with me. His education since we parted should tend logically to make him despise me. He has studied, thought, suffered, loved–loved those very plain sisters and nieces. Poor me! how should I be virtuous? I have no sisters, plain or pretty!–nothing to love, work for, live for. My dear Theodore, if you are going one of these days to despise me and drop me–in the name of comfort, come to the point at once, and make an end of our state of tension.
He is troubled, too, about Mr. Sloane. His attitude toward the bonhomme quite passes my comprehension. It’s the queerest jumble of contraries. He penetrates him, disapproves of him–yet respects and admires him. It all comes of the poor boy’s shrinking New England conscience. He’s afraid to give his perceptions a fair chance, lest, forsooth, they should look over his neighbor’s wall. He’ll not understand that he may as well sacrifice the old reprobate for a lamb as for a sheep. His view of the gentleman, therefore, is a perfect tissue of cobwebs–a jumble of half-way sorrows, and wire-drawn charities, and hair-breadth ‘scapes from utter damnation, and sudden platitudes of generosity–fit, all of it, to make an angel curse!
“The man’s a perfect egotist and fool,” say I, “but I like him.” Now Theodore likes him–or rather wants to like him; but he can’t reconcile it to his self-respect–fastidious deity!–to like a fool. Why the deuce can’t he leave it alone altogether? It’s a purely practical matter. He ought to do the duties of his place all the better for having his head clear of officious sentiment. I don’t believe in disinterested service; and Theodore is too desperately bent on preserving his disinterestedness. With me it’s different. I am perfectly free to love the bonhomme–for a fool. I’m neither a scribe nor a Pharisee; I am simply a student of the art of life.
And then, Theodore is troubled about his sisters. He’s afraid he’s not doing his duty by them. He thinks he ought to be with them–to be getting a larger salary–to be teaching his nieces. I am not versed in such questions. Perhaps he ought.
May 3d.–This morning Theodore sent me word that he was ill and unable to get up; upon which I immediately went in to see him. He had caught cold, was sick and a little feverish. I urged him to make no attempt to leave his room, and assured him that I would do what I could to reconcile Mr. Sloane to his absence. This I found an easy matter. I read to him for a couple of hours, wrote four letters–one in French–and then talked for a while–a good while. I have done more talking, by the way, in the last fortnight, than in any previous twelve months–much of it, too, none of the wisest, nor, I may add, of the most superstitiously veracious. In a little discussion, two or three days ago, with Theodore, I came to the point and let him know that in gossiping with Mr. Sloane I made no scruple, for our common satisfaction, of “coloring” more or less. My confession gave him “that turn,” as Mrs. Gamp would say, that his present illness may be the result of it. Nevertheless, poor dear fellow, I trust he will be on his legs to-morrow. This afternoon, somehow, I found myself really in the humor of talking. There was something propitious in the circumstances; a hard, cold rain without, a wood-fire in the library, the bonhomme puffing cigarettes in his arm-chair, beside him a portfolio of newly imported prints and photographs, and–Theodore tucked safely away in bed. Finally, when I brought our tete-a-tete to a close (taking good care not to overstay my welcome) Mr. Sloane seized me by both hands and honored me with one of his venerable grins. “Max,” he said–“you must let me call you Max–you are the most delightful man I ever knew.”
Verily, there’s some virtue left in me yet. I believe I almost blushed.
“Why didn’t I know you ten years ago?” the old man went on. “There are ten years lost.”
“Ten years ago I was not worth your knowing,” Max remarked.
“But I did know you!” cried the bonhomme. “I knew you in knowing your mother.”
Ah! my mother again. When the old man begins that chapter I feel like telling him to blow out his candle and go to bed.
“At all events,” he continued, “we must make the most of the years that remain. I am a rotten old carcass, but I have no intention of dying. You won’t get tired of me and want to go away?”
“I am devoted to you, sir,” I said. “But I must be looking for some occupation, you know.”
“Occupation? bother! I’ll give you occupation. I’ll give you wages.”
“I am afraid that you will want to give me the wages without the work.” And then I declared that I must go up and look at poor Theodore.
The bonhomme still kept my hands. “I wish very much that I could get you to be as fond of me as you are of poor Theodore.”
“Ah, don’t talk about fondness, Mr. Sloane. I don’t deal much in that article.”
“Don’t you like my secretary?”
“Not as he deserves.”
“Nor as he likes you, perhaps?”
“He likes me more than I deserve.”
“Well, Max,” my host pursued, “we can be good friends all the same. We don’t need a hocus-pocus of false sentiment. We are men, aren’t we?–men of sublime good sense.” And just here, as the old man looked at me, the pressure of his hands deepened to a convulsive grasp, and the bloodless mask of his countenance was suddenly distorted with a nameless fear. “Ah, my dear young man!” he cried, “come and be a son to me–the son of my age and desolation! For God’s sake, don’t leave me to pine and die alone!”
I was greatly surprised–and I may add I was moved. Is it true, then, that this dilapidated organism contains such measureless depths of horror and longing? He has evidently a mortal fear of death. I assured him on my honor that he may henceforth call upon me for any service.
8th.–Theodore’s little turn proved more serious than I expected. He has been confined to his room till to-day. This evening he came down to the library in his dressing-gown. Decidedly, Mr. Sloane is an eccentric, but hardly, as Theodore thinks, a “charming” one. There is something extremely curious in his humors and fancies–the incongruous fits and starts, as it were, of his taste. For some reason, best known to himself, he took it into his head to regard it as a want of delicacy, of respect, of savoir-vivre–of heaven knows what–that poor Theodore, who is still weak and languid, should enter the sacred precinct of his study in the vulgar drapery of a dressing-gown. The sovereign trouble with the bonhomme is an absolute lack of the instinct of justice. He’s of the real feminine turn–I believe I have written it before–without the redeeming fidelity of the sex. I honestly believe that I might come into his study in my night-shirt and he would smile at it as a picturesque deshabille. But for poor Theodore to-night there was nothing but scowls and frowns, and barely a civil inquiry about his health. But poor Theodore is not such a fool, either; he will not die of a snubbing; I never said he was a weakling. Once he fairly saw from what quarter the wind blew, he bore the master’s brutality with the utmost coolness and gallantry. Can it be that Mr. Sloane really wishes to drop him? The delicious old brute! He understands favor and friendship only as a selfish rapture–a reaction, an infatuation, an act of aggressive, exclusive patronage. It’s not a bestowal, with him, but a transfer, and half his pleasure in causing his sun to shine is that–being wofully near its setting–it will produce certain long fantastic shadows. He wants to cast my shadow, I suppose, over Theodore; but fortunately I am not altogether an opaque body. Since Theodore was taken ill he has been into his room but once, and has sent him none but a dry little message or two. I, too, have been much less attentive than I should have wished to be; but my time has not been my own. It has been, every moment of it, at the disposal of my host. He actually runs after me; he devours me; he makes a fool of himself, and is trying hard to make one of me. I find that he will bear–that, in fact, he actually enjoys–a sort of unexpected contradiction. He likes anything that will tickle his fancy, give an unusual tone to our relations, remind him of certain historical characters whom he thinks he resembles. I have stepped into Theodore’s shoes, and done–with what I feel in my bones to be very inferior skill and taste–all the reading, writing, condensing, transcribing and advising that he has been accustomed to do. I have driven with the bonhomme; played chess and cribbage with him; beaten him, bullied him, contradicted him; forced him into going out on the water under my charge. Who shall say, after this, that I haven’t done my best to discourage his advances, put myself in a bad light? As yet, my efforts are vain; in fact they quite turn to my own confusion. Mr. Sloane is so thankful at having escaped from the lake with his life that he looks upon me as a preserver and protector. Confound it all; it’s a bore! But one thing is certain, it can’t last forever. Admit that he has cast Theodore out and taken me in. He will speedily discover that he has made a pretty mess of it, and that he had much better have left well enough alone. He likes my reading and writing now, but in a month he will begin to hate them. He will miss Theodore’s better temper and better knowledge–his healthy impersonal judgment. What an advantage that well-regulated youth has over me, after all! I am for days, he is for years; he for the long run, I for the short. I, perhaps, am intended for success, but he is adapted for happiness. He has in his heart a tiny sacred particle which leavens his whole being and keeps it pure and sound–a faculty of admiration and respect. For him human nature is still a wonder and a mystery; it bears a divine stamp–Mr. Sloane’s tawdry composition as well as the rest.
13th.–I have refused, of course, to supplant Theodore further, in the exercise of his functions, and he has resumed his morning labors with Mr. Sloane. I, on my side, have spent these morning hours in scouring the country on that capital black mare, the use of which is one of the perquisites of Theodore’s place. The days have been magnificent–the heat of the sun tempered by a murmuring, wandering wind, the whole north a mighty ecstasy of sound and verdure, the sky a far-away vault of bended blue. Not far from the mill at M., the other end of the lake, I met, for the third time, that very pretty young girl who reminds me so forcibly of A.L. She makes so lavish a use of her eyes that I ventured to stop and bid her good-morning. She seems nothing loath to an acquaintance. She’s a pure barbarian in speech, but her eyes are quite articulate. These rides do me good; I was growing too pensive.
There is something the matter with Theodore; his illness seems to have left him strangely affected. He has fits of silent stiffness, alternating with spasms of extravagant gayety. He avoids me at times for hours together, and then he comes and looks at me with an inscrutable smile, as if he were on the verge of a burst of confidence–which again is swallowed up in the immensity of his dumbness. Is he hatching some astounding benefit to his species? Is he working to bring about my removal to a higher sphere of action? Nous verrons bien.
18th.–Theodore threatens departure. He received this morning a letter from one of his sisters–the young widow–announcing her engagement to a clergyman whose acquaintance she has recently made, and intimating her expectation of an immediate union with the gentleman–a ceremony which would require Theodore’s attendance. Theodore, in high good humor, read the letter aloud at breakfast–and, to tell the truth, it was a charming epistle. He then spoke of his having to go on to the wedding, a proposition to which Mr. Sloane graciously assented–much more than assented. “I shall be sorry to lose you, after so happy a connection,” said the old man. Theodore turned pale, stared a moment, and then, recovering his color and his composure, declared that he should have no objection in life to coming back.
“Bless your soul!” cried the bonhomme, “you don’t mean to say you will leave your other sister all alone?”
To which Theodore replied that he would arrange for her and her little girl to live with the married pair. “It’s the only proper thing,” he remarked, as if it were quite settled. Has it come to this, then, that Mr. Sloane actually wants to turn him out of the house? The shameless old villain! He keeps smiling an uncanny smile, which means, as I read it, that if the poor young man once departs he shall never return on the old footing–for all his impudence!
20th.–This morning, at breakfast, we had a terrific scene. A letter arrives for Theodore; he opens it, turns white and red, frowns, falters, and then informs us that the clever widow has broken off her engagement. No wedding, therefore, and no departure for Theodore. The bonhomme was furious. In his fury he took the liberty of calling poor Mrs. Parker (the sister) a very uncivil name. Theodore rebuked him, with perfect good taste, and kept his temper.
“If my opinions don’t suit you, Mr. Lisle,” the old man broke out, “and my mode of expressing them displeases you, you know you can easily protect yourself.”
“My dear Mr. Sloane,” said Theodore, “your opinions, as a general thing, interest me deeply, and have never ceased to act beneficially upon the formation of my own. Your mode of expressing them is always brilliant, and I wouldn’t for the world, after all our pleasant intercourse, separate from you in bitterness. Only, I repeat, your qualification of my sister’s conduct is perfectly uncalled for. If you knew her, you would be the first to admit it.”
There was something in Theodore’s look and manner, as he said these words, which puzzled me all the morning. After dinner, finding myself alone with him, I told him I was glad he was not obliged to go away. He looked at me with the mysterious smile I have mentioned, thanked me, and fell into meditation. As this bescribbled chronicle is the record of my follies as well of my hauts faits, I needn’t hesitate to say that for a moment I was a good deal vexed. What business has this angel of candor to deal in signs and portents, to look unutterable things? What right has he to do so with me especially, in whom he has always professed an absolute confidence? Just as I was about to cry out, “Come, my dear fellow, this affectation of mystery has lasted quite long enough–favor me at last with the result of your cogitations!”–as I was on the point of thus expressing my impatience of his ominous behavior, the oracle at last addressed itself to utterance.
“You see, my dear Max,” he said, “I can’t, in justice to myself, go away in obedience to the sort of notice that was served on me this morning. What do you think of my actual footing here?”
Theodore’s actual footing here seems to me impossible; of course I said so.
“No, I assure you it’s not,” he answered. “I should, on the contrary, feel very uncomfortable to think that I had come away, except by my own choice. You see a man can’t afford to cheapen himself. What are you laughing at?”
“I am laughing, in the first place, my dear fellow, to hear on your lips the language of cold calculation; and in the second place, at your odd notion of the process by which a man keeps himself up in the market.”
“I assure you it’s the correct notion. I came here as a particular favor to Mr. Sloane; it was expressly understood so. The sort of work was odious to me; I had regularly to break myself in. I had to trample on my convictions, preferences, prejudices. I don’t take such things easily; I take them hard; and when once the effort has been made, I can’t consent to have it wasted. If Mr. Sloane needed me then, he needs me still. I am ignorant of any change having taken place in his intentions, or in his means of satisfying them. I came, not to amuse him, but to do a certain work; I hope to remain until the work is completed. To go away sooner is to make a confession of incapacity which, I protest, costs me too much. I am too conceited, if you like.”
Theodore spoke these words with a face which I have never seen him wear–a fixed, mechanical smile; a hard, dry glitter in his eyes; a harsh, strident tone in his voice–in his whole physiognomy a gleam, as it were, a note of defiance. Now I confess that for defiance I have never been conscious of an especial relish. When I am defied I am beastly. “My dear man,” I replied, “your sentiments do you prodigious credit. Your very ingenious theory of your present situation, as well as your extremely pronounced sense of your personal value, are calculated to insure you a degree of practical success which can very well dispense with the furtherance of my poor good wishes.” Oh, the grimness of his visage as he listened to this, and, I suppose I may add, the grimness of mine! But I have ceased to be puzzled. Theodore’s conduct for the past ten days is suddenly illumined with a backward, lurid ray. I will note down here a few plain truths which it behooves me to take to heart–commit to memory. Theodore is jealous of Maximus Austin. Theodore hates the said Maximus. Theodore has been seeking for the past three months to see his name written, last but not least, in a certain testamentary document: “Finally, I bequeath to my dear young friend, Theodore Lisle, in return for invaluable services and unfailing devotion, the bulk of my property, real and personal, consisting of–” (hereupon follows an exhaustive enumeration of houses, lands, public securities, books, pictures, horses, and dogs). It is for this that he has toiled, and watched, and prayed; submitted to intellectual weariness and spiritual torture; accommodated himself to levity, blasphemy, and insult. For this he sets his teeth and tightens his grasp; for this he’ll fight. Dear me, it’s an immense weight off one’s mind! There are nothing, then, but vulgar, common laws; no sublime exceptions, no transcendent anomalies. Theodore’s a knave, a hypo–nay, nay; stay, irreverent hand!–Theodore’s a man! Well, that’s all I want. He wants fight–he shall have it. Have I got, at last, my simple, natural emotion?
21st.–I have lost no time. This evening, late, after I had heard Theodore go to his room (I had left the library early, on the pretext of having letters to write), I repaired to Mr. Sloane, who had not yet gone to bed, and informed him I should be obliged to leave him at once, and pick up a subsistence somehow in New York. He felt the blow; it brought him straight down on his marrow-bones. He went through the whole gamut of his arts and graces; he blustered, whimpered, entreated, flattered. He tried to drag in Theodore’s name; but this I, of course, prevented. But, finally, why, why, WHY, after all my promises of fidelity, must I thus cruelly desert him? Then came my trump card: I have spent my last penny; while I stay, I’m a beggar. The remainder of this extraordinary scene I have no power to describe: how the bonhomme, touched, inflamed, inspired, by the thought of my destitution, and at the same time annoyed, perplexed, bewildered at having to commit himself to doing anything for me, worked himself into a nervous frenzy which deprived him of a clear sense of the value of his words and his actions; how I, prompted by the irresistible spirit of my desire to leap astride of his weakness and ride it hard to the goal of my dreams, cunningly contrived to keep his spirit at the fever-point, so that strength and reason and resistance should burn themselves out. I shall probably never again have such a sensation as I enjoyed to-night–actually feel a heated human heart throbbing and turning and struggling in my grasp; know its pants, its spasms, its convulsions, and its final senseless quiescence. At half-past one o’clock Mr. Sloane got out of his chair, went to his secretary, opened a private drawer, and took out a folded paper. “This is my will,” he said, “made some seven weeks ago. If you will stay with me I will destroy it.”
“Really, Mr. Sloane,” I said, “if you think my purpose is to exert any pressure upon your testamentary inclinations–“
“I will tear it in pieces,” he cried; “I will burn it up! I shall be as sick as a dog to-morrow; but I will do it. A-a-h!”
He clapped his hand to his side, as if in sudden, overwhelming pain, and sank back fainting into his chair. A single glance assured me that he was unconscious. I possessed myself of the paper, opened it, and perceived that he had left everything to his saintly secretary. For an instant a savage, puerile feeling of hate popped up in my bosom, and I came within a hair’s-breadth of obeying my foremost impulse–that of stuffing the document into the fire. Fortunately, my reason overtook my passion, though for a moment it was an even race. I put the paper back into the bureau, closed it, and rang the bell for Robert (the old man’s servant). Before he came I stood watching the poor, pale remnant of mortality before me, and wondering whether those feeble life-gasps were numbered. He was as white as a sheet, grimacing with pain–horribly ugly. Suddenly he opened his eyes; they met my own; I fell on my knees and took his hands. They closed on mine with a grasp strangely akin to the rigidity of death. Nevertheless, since then he has revived, and has relapsed again into a comparatively healthy sleep. Robert seems to know how to deal with him.
22d.–Mr. Sloane is seriously ill–out of his mind and unconscious of people’s identity. The doctor has been here, off and on, all day, but this evening reports improvement. I have kept out of the old man’s room, and confined myself to my own, reflecting largely upon the chance of his immediate death. Does Theodore know of the will? Would it occur to him to divide the property? Would it occur to me, in his place? We met at dinner, and talked in a grave, desultory, friendly fashion. After all, he’s an excellent fellow. I don’t hate him. I don’t even dislike him. He jars on me, il m’agace; but that’s no reason why I should do him an evil turn. Nor shall I. The property is a fixed idea, that’s all. I shall get it if I can. We are fairly matched. Before heaven, no, we are not fairly matched! Theodore has a conscience.
23d.–I am restless and nervous–and for good reasons. Scribbling here keeps me quiet. This morning Mr. Sloane is better; feeble and uncertain in mind, but unmistakably on the rise. I may confess now that I feel relieved of a horrid burden. Last night I hardly slept a wink. I lay awake listening to the pendulum of my clock. It seemed to say, “He lives–he dies.” I fully expected to hear it stop suddenly at dies. But it kept going all the morning, and to a decidedly more lively tune. In the afternoon the old man sent for me. I found him in his great muffled bed, with his face the color of damp chalk, and his eyes glowing faintly, like torches half stamped out. I was forcibly struck with the utter loneliness of his lot. For all human attendance, my villainous self grinning at his bedside and old Robert without, listening, doubtless, at the keyhole. The bonhomme stared at me stupidly; then seemed to know me, and greeted me with a sickly smile. It was some moments before he was able to speak. At last he faintly bade me to descend into the library, open the secret drawer of the secretary (which he contrived to direct me how to do), possess myself of his will, and burn it up. He appears to have forgotten his having taken it out night before last. I told him that I had an insurmountable aversion to any personal dealings with the document. He smiled, patted the back of my hand, and requested me, in that case, to get it, at least, and bring it to him. I couldn’t deny him that favor? No, I couldn’t, indeed. I went down to the library, therefore, and on entering the room found Theodore standing by the fireplace with a bundle of papers. The secretary was open. I stood still, looking from the violated cabinet to the documents in his hand. Among them I recognized, by its shape and size, the paper of which I had intended to possess myself. Without delay I walked straight up to him. He looked surprised, but not confused. “I am afraid I shall have to trouble you to surrender one of those papers,” I said.
“Surrender, Maximus? To anything of your own you are perfectly welcome. I didn’t know that you made use of Mr. Sloane’s secretary. I was looking for some pages of notes which I have made myself and in which I conceive I have a property.”
“This is what I want, Theodore,” I said; and I drew the will, unfolded, from between his hands. As I did so his eyes fell upon the superscription, “Last Will and Testament, March. F.S.” He flushed an extraordinary crimson. Our eyes met. Somehow–I don’t know how or why, or for that matter why not–I burst into a violent peal of laughter. Theodore stood staring, with two hot, bitter tears in his eyes.
“Of course you think I came to ferret out that thing,” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders–those of my body only. I confess, morally, I was on my knees with contrition, but there was a fascination in it–a fatality. I remembered that in the hurry of my movements the other evening I had slipped the will simply into one of the outer drawers of the cabinet, among Theodore’s own papers. “Mr. Sloane sent me for it,” I remarked.
“Very good; I am glad to hear he’s well enough to think of such things.”
“He means to destroy it.”
“I hope, then, he has another made.”
“Mentally, I suppose he has.”
“Unfortunately, his weakness isn’t mental–or exclusively so.”
“Oh, he will live to make a dozen more,” I said. “Do you know the purport of this one?”
Theodore’s color, by this time, had died away into plain white. He shook his head. The doggedness of the movement provoked me, and I wished to arouse his curiosity. “I have his commission to destroy it.”
Theodore smiled very grandly. “It’s not a task I envy you,” he said.
“I should think not–especially if you knew the import of the will.” He stood with folded arms, regarding me with his cold, detached eyes. I couldn’t stand it. “Come, it’s your property! You are sole legatee. I give it up to you.” And I thrust the paper into his hand.
He received it mechanically; but after a pause, bethinking himself, he unfolded it and cast his eyes over the contents. Then he slowly smoothed it together and held it a moment with a tremulous hand. “You say that Mr. Sloane directed you to destroy it?” he finally inquired.
“I say so.”
“And that you know the contents?”
“And that you were about to do what he asked you?”
“On the contrary, I declined.”
Theodore fixed his eyes for a moment on the superscription and then raised them again to my face. “Thank you, Max,” he said. “You have left me a real satisfaction.” He tore the sheet across and threw the bits into the fire. We stood watching them burn. “Now he can make another,” said Theodore.
“Twenty others,” I replied.
“No,” said Theodore, “you will take care of that.”
“You are very bitter,” I said, sharply enough.
“No, I am perfectly indifferent. Farewell.” And he put out his hand.
“Are you going away?”
“Of course I am. Good-by.”
“Good-by, then. But isn’t your departure rather sudden?”
“I ought to have gone three weeks ago–three weeks ago.” I had taken his hand, he pulled it away; his voice was trembling–there were tears in it.
“Is that indifference?” I asked.
“It’s something you will never know!” he cried. “It’s shame! I am not sorry you should see what I feel. It will suggest to you, perhaps, that my heart has never been in this filthy contest. Let me assure you, at any rate, that it hasn’t; that it has had nothing but scorn for the base perversion of my pride and my ambition. I could easily shed tears of joy at their return–the return of the prodigals! Tears of sorrow–sorrow–“
He was unable to go on. He sank into a chair, covering his face with his hands.
“For God’s sake, stick to the joy!” I exclaimed.
He rose to his feet again. “Well,” he said, “it was for your sake that I parted with my self-respect; with your assistance I recover it.”
“How for my sake?”
“For whom but you would I have gone as far as I did? For what other purpose than that of keeping our friendship whole would I have borne you company into this narrow pass? A man whom I cared for less I would long since have parted with. You were needed–you and something you have about you that always takes me so–to bring me to this. You ennobled, exalted, enchanted the struggle. I did value my prospect of coming into Mr. Sloane’s property. I valued it for my poor sister’s sake as well as for my own, so long as it was the natural reward of conscientious service, and not the prize of hypocrisy and cunning. With another man than you I never would have contested such a prize. But you fascinated me, even as my rival. You played with me, deceived me, betrayed me. I held my ground, hoping you would see that what you were doing was not fair. But if you have seen it, it has made no difference with you. For Mr. Sloane, from the moment that, under your magical influence, he revealed his nasty little nature, I had nothing but contempt.”
“And for me now?”
“Don’t ask me. I don’t trust myself.”
“Hate, I suppose.”
“Is that the best you can imagine? Farewell.”
“Is it a serious farewell–farewell forever?”
“How can there be any other?”
“I am sorry this should be your point of view. It’s characteristic. All the more reason then that I should say a word in self-defence. You accuse me of having ‘played with you, deceived you, betrayed you.’ It seems to me that you are quite beside the mark. You say you were such a friend of mine; if so, you ought to be one still. It was not to my fine sentiments you attached yourself, for I never had any or pretended to any. In anything I have done recently, therefore, there has been no inconsistency. I never pretended to take one’s friendships so seriously. I don’t understand the word in the sense you attach to it. I don’t understand the feeling of affection between men. To me it means quite another thing. You give it a meaning of your own; you enjoy the profit of your invention; it’s no more than just that you should pay the penalty. Only it seems to me rather hard that I should pay it.” Theodore remained silent, but he looked quite sick. “Is it still a ‘serious farewell’?” I went on. “It seems a pity. After this clearing up, it appears to me that I shall be on better terms with you. No man can have a deeper appreciation of your excellent parts, a keener enjoyment of your society. I should very much regret the loss of it.”
“Have we, then, all this while understood each other so little?” said Theodore.
“Don’t say ‘we’ and ‘each other.’ I think I have understood you.”
“Very likely. It’s not for my having kept anything back.”
“Well, I do you justice. To me you have always been over-generous. Try now and be just.”
Still he stood silent, with his cold, hard frown; it was plain that, if he was to come back to me, it would be from the other world–if there be one! What he was going to answer I know not. The door opened, and Robert appeared, pale, trembling, his eyes starting in his head.
“I verily believe that poor Mr. Sloane is dead in his bed!” he cried.
There was a moment’s perfect silence. “Amen,” said I. “Yes, old boy, try and be just.” Mr. Sloane had quietly died in my absence.
24th.–Theodore went up to town this morning, having shaken hands with me in silence before he started. Doctor Jones, and Brooks the attorney, have been very officious, and, by their advice, I have telegraphed to a certain Miss Meredith, a maiden lady, by their account the nearest of kin; or, in other words, simply a discarded niece of the defunct. She telegraphs back that she will arrive in person for the funeral. I shall remain till she comes. I have lost a fortune, but have I irretrievably lost a friend? I am sure I can’t say. Yes, I shall wait for Miss Meredith.