Story type: Literature
NO. I. INTRODUCTORY AND EXPLANATORY.
(Eastlake has renewed an episode of his past life. The formalities have been satisfied at a chance meeting, and he continues.)
… So your carnations lie over there, a bit beyond this page, in a confusion of manuscripts. Sweet source of this idle letter and gentle memento of the house on Grant Street and of you! I fancy I catch their odor before it escapes generously into the vague darkness beyond my window. They whisper: “Be tender, be frank; recall to her mind what is precious in the past. For departed delights are rosy with deceitful hopes, and a woman’s heart becomes heavy with living. We are the woman you once knew, but we are much more. We have learned new secrets, new emotions, new ambitions, in love–we are fuller than before.” So–for to-morrow they will be shrivelled and lifeless–I take up their message to-night.
I see you now as this afternoon at the Goodriches’, when you came in triumphantly to essay that hot room of empty, passive folk. Someone was singing somewhere, and we were staring at one another. There you stood at the door, placing us; the roses, scattered in plutocratic profusion, had drooped their heads to our hot faces. We turned from the music to you. You knew it, and you were glad of it. You knew that they were busy about you, that you and your amiable hostess made an effective group at the head of the room. You scented their possible disapproval with zest, for you had so often mocked their good-will with impunity that you were serenely confident of getting what you wanted. Did you want a lover? Not that I mean to offer myself in flesh and blood: God forbid that I should join the imploring procession, even at a respectful distance! My pen is at your service. I prefer to be your historian, your literary maid–half slave, half confidant; for then you will always welcome me. If I were a lover, I might some day be inopportune. That would not be pleasant.
Yes, they were chattering about you, especially around the table where some solid ladies of Chicago served iced drinks. I was sipping it all in with the punch, and looking at the pinks above the dark hair, and wondering if you found having your own way as good fun as when you were eighteen. You have gained, my dear lady, while I have been knocking about the world. You are now more than “sweet”: you are almost handsome. I suppose it is a question of lights and the time of day whether or not you are really brilliant. And you carry surety in your face. There is nothing in Chicago to startle you, perhaps not in the world.
She at the punch remarked, casually, to her of the sherbet: “I wonder when Miss Armstrong will settle matters with Lane? It is the best she can do now, though he isn’t as well worth while as the men she threw over.” And her neighbor replied: “She might do worse than Lane. She could get more from him than the showy ones.” So Lane is the name of the day. They have gauged you and put you down at Lane. I took an ice and waited–but you will have to supply the details.
Meantime, you sailed on, with that same everlasting enthusiasm upon your face that I knew six years ago, until you spied me. How extremely natural you made your greeting! I confess I believed that I had lived for that smile six years, and suffered a bad noise for the sound of your voice. It seemed but a minute until we found ourselves almost alone with the solid women at the ices. One swift phrase from you, and we had slipped back through the meaningless years till we stood there in the parlor at Grant Street, mere boy and girl. The babbling room vanished for a few golden moments. Then you rustled off, and I believe I told Mrs. Goodrich that musicales were very nice, for they gave you a chance to talk. And I went to the dressing-room, wondering what rare chance had brought me again within the bondage of that voice.
Then, then, dear pinks, you came sailing over the stairs, peeping out from that bunch of lace. I loitered and spoke. Were the eyes green, or blue, or gray; ambition, or love, or indifference to the world? I was at my old puzzle again, while you unfastened the pinks, and, before the butler, who acquiesced at your frivolity in impertinent silence, you held them out to me. Only you know the preciousness of unsought-for favors. “Write me,” you said; and I write.
What should man write about to you but of love and yourself? My pen, I see, has not lost its personal gait in running over the mill books. Perhaps it politely anticipates what is expected! So much the better, say, for you expect what all men give–love and devotion. You would not know a man who could not love you. Your little world is a circle of possibilities. Let me explain. Each lover is a possible conception of life placed at a slightly different angle from his predecessor or successor. Within this circle you have turned and turned, until your head is a bit weary. But I stand outside and observe the whirligig. Shall I be drawn in? No, for I should become only a conventional interest. “If the salt,” etc. I remember you once taught in a mission school.
The flowers will tell me no more! Next time give me a rose–a huge, hybrid, opulent rose, the product of a dozen forcing processes–and I will love you a new way. As the flowers say good-by, I will say goodnight. Shall I burn them? No, for they would smoulder. And if I left them here alone, to-morrow they would be wan. There! I have thrown them out wide into that gulf of a street twelve stories below. They will flutter down in the smoky darkness, and fall, like a message from the land of the lotus-eaters, upon a prosy wayfarer. And safe in my heart there lives that gracious picture of my lady as she stands above me and gives them to me. That is eternal: you and the pinks are but phantoms. Farewell!
NO. II. ACQUIESCENT AND ENCOURAGING.
(Miss Armstrong replies on a dull blue, canvas-textured page, over which her stub-pen wanders in fashionable negligence. She arrives on the third page at the matter in hand.)
Ah, it was very sweet, your literary love-letter. Considerable style, as you would say, but too palpably artificial. If you want to deceive this woman, my dear sir trifler, you must disguise your mockery more artfully.
Why didn’t I find you at the Stanwoods’? I had Nettie send you a card. I had promised you to a dozen delightful women, “our choicest lot,” who were all agog to see my supercilious and dainty sir…. Why will you always play with things? Perhaps you will say because I am not worth serious moments. You play with everything, I believe, and that is banal. Ever sincerely,
NO. III. EXPLANATORY AND AUTOBIOGRAPHIC.
(Eastlake has the masculine fondness for seeing himself in the right.)
I turned the Stanwoods’ card down, and for your sake, or rather for the sake of your memory. I preferred to sit here and dream about you in the midst of my chimney-pots and the dull March mists rather than to run the risk of another, and perhaps fatal, impression. And so far as you are concerned your reproach is just. Do I “play with everything”? Perhaps I am afraid that it might play with me. Imagine frolicking with tigers, who might take you seriously some day, as a tidbit for afternoon tea–if you should confess that you were serious! That’s the way I think of the world, or, rather, your part of it. Surely, it is a magnificent game, whose rules we learn completely just as our blood runs too slowly for active exercise. I like to break off a piece of its cake (or its rank cheese at times) and lug it away with me to my den up here for further examination. I think about it, I dream over it; yes, in a reflective fashion, I feel. It is a charming, experimental way of living.
Then, after the echo becomes faint and lifeless, or, if you prefer, the cheese too musty, I sally out once more to refresh my larder. You play also in your way, but not so intelligently (pardon me), for you deceive yourself from day to day that your particular object, your temporary mood, is the one eternal thing in life. After all, you have mastered but one trick–the trick of being loved. With that trick you expect to take the world; but, alas! you capture only an old man’s purse or a young man’s passion.
Artificial, my letters–yes, if you wish. I should say, not crude– matured, considered. I discuss the love you long to experience. I dangle it before your eyes as a bit of the drapery that goes to the ball of life. But when dawn almost comes and the ball is over, you mustn’t expect the paper roses to smell. This mystifies you a little, for you are a plain, downright siren. Your lovers’ songs have been in simple measures. Well, the moral is this: take my love-letters as real (in their way) as the play, or rather, the opera; infinitely true for the moment, unreal for the hour, eternal as the dead passions of the ages. Further, it is better to feel the aromatic attributes of love than the dangerous or unlovely reality. You can flirt with number nine or marry number ten, but I shall be stored away in your drawer for a life.
You have carried me far afield, away from men and things. So, for a moment, I have stopped to listen to the hum of this chaotic city as it rises from Dearborn and State in the full blast of a commercial noon. You wonder why an unprofitable person like myself lives here, and not in an up-town club with my fellows. Ah, my dear lady, I wish to see the game always going on in its liveliest fashion. So I have made a den for myself, not under the eaves of a hotel, but on the roof, among the ventilators. Here I can see the clouds of steam and the perpetual pall of smoke below me. I can revel in gorgeous sunsets when the fiery light threads the smoke and the mists and the sodden clouds eastward over the lake. And at night I take my steamer chair to the battlements and peer over into a sea of lights below. As I sit writing to you, outside go the click and rattle of the elevator gates and other distant noises of humanity. My echo comes directly enough, but it does not deafen me. Below there exists my barber, and farther down that black pit of an elevator lies lunch, or a cigar, or a possible cocktail, if the mental combination should prove unpleasant. Across the hall is Aladdin’s lamp, otherwise my banker; and above all is Haroun al Raschid. Am I not wise? In the morning, if it is fair, I take a walk among the bulkheads on the roof, and watch the blue deception of the lake. Perhaps, if the wind comes booming in, I hear the awakening roar in the streets and think of work. Perhaps the clear emptiness of a Sunday hovers over the shore; then I wonder what you will say to this letter. Will you feel with me that you should live on a housetop and eat cheese? Do you long for a cool stream without flies, and a carpet of golden sand? Do you want a coal fire and a husband home at six-thirty, or a third-class ticket to the realms of nonsense? Are you thinking of Lane’s income, or Smith’s cleverness, or the ennui of too many dinners?
I know: you are thinking of love while you read this, and are happy. If I might send you a new sensation in every line, I should be happy, too, for your prodigal nature demands novelty. I should then be master for a moment. And love is mastery and submission, the two poles of a strong magnet. Adieu.
NO. IV. FURTHER AUTOBIOGRAPHIC.
(Eastlake continues apropos of a chance meeting.)
So you rather like the curious flavor of this new dish, but it puzzles you. You ask for facts? What a stamp Chicago has put on your soul! You will continue to regard as facts the feeble fancies that God has allowed to petrify. I warn you that facts kill, but you shall have them. I had meditated a delightful sheet of love that has been disdainfully shoved into the waste-basket. A grave moral there for you, my lady!
Do you remember when I was very young and gauche? Doubtless, for women never forget first impressions of that sort. You dressed very badly, and were quite ceremonious. I was the bantling son of one of your father’s provincial correspondents, to adopt the suave term of the foreigners. I had been sent to Chicago to fit for a technical school, where I was to learn to be very clever about mill machinery. Perhaps you remember my father–a sweet-natured, wiry, active man, incapable of conceiving an interest in life that was divorced from respectability. I think he had some imagination, for now and then he was troubled about my becoming a loafer. However, he certainly kept it in control: I was to become a great mill owner.
It was all luck at first: you were luck, and the Tech. was luck. Then I found my voice and saw my problem: to cross my father’s aspirations, to be other than the Wabash mill owner, would have been cruel. You see his desires were more passionate than mine. I worried through the mechanical, deadening routine of the Tech. somehow, and finally got courage enough to tell him that I could not accept Wabash quite yet. I had the audacity to propose two years abroad. We compromised on one, but I understood that I must not finally disappoint him. He cared so much that it would have been wicked. A few people in this world have positive and masterful convictions. An explosion or insanity comes if their wills smoulder in ineffectual silence. Most of us have no more than inclinations. It seems wise and best that those of mere inclinations should waive their prejudices in favor of those who feel intensely. So much for the great questions of individuality and personality that set the modern world a-shrieking. This is a commonplace solution of the great family problem Turgenieff propounded in “Fathers and Sons.” Perchance you have heard of Turgenieff?
So I prepared to follow my father’s will, for I loved him exceedingly. His life had not been happy, and his nature, as I have said, was a more exacting one than mine. The price of submission, however, was not plain to me until I was launched that year in Paris in a strange, cosmopolitan world. I was supposed to attend courses at the Ecole Polytechnique, but I became mad with the longings that are wafted about Europe from capital to capital. I went to Italy–to Venice and Florence and Rome–to Athens and Constantinople and Vienna. In a word, I unfitted myself for Wabash as completely as I could, and troubled my spirit with vain attempts after art and feeling.
You women do not know the intoxication of five-and-twenty–a few hundred francs in one’s pockets, the centuries behind, creation ahead. You do not know what it is to hunger after the power of understanding and the power of expression; to see the world as divine one minute and a mechanic hell the next; to feel the convictions of the vagabond; to grudge each sunbeam that falls unseen by you on some mouldering gate in some neglected city, each face of the living wherein possible life looks out untried by you, each picture that means a new curiosity. No, for, after all, you are material souls; you need a Bradshaw and a Baedeker, even in the land of dreams. All men, I like to think, for one short breath in their lives, believe this narrow world to be shoreless. They feel that they should die in discontent if they could not experience, test, this wonderful conglomerate of existence. It is an old, old matter I am writing you about. We have classified it nicely, these days; we call it the “romantic spirit,” and we say that it is made three parts of youth and two of discontent–a perpetual expression of the world’s pessimism.
I look back, and I think that I have done you wrong. Women like you have something nearly akin to this mood. Some time in your lives you would all be romantic lovers. The commonest of you anticipate a masculine soul that shall harmonize your discontent into happiness. Most of you are not very nice about it; you make your hero out of the most obvious man. Yet it is pathetic, that longing for something beyond yourselves. That passionate desire for a complete illusion in love is the one permanent note you women have attained in literature. In your heart of hearts you would all (until you become stiff in the arms of an unlovely life) follow a cabman, if he could make the world dance for you in this joyous fashion. Some are hard to satisfy–for example, you, my lady–and you go your restless, brilliant little way, flirting with this man, coquetting with that, examining a third, until your heart grows weary or until you are at peace. You may marry for money or for love, and in twenty years you will teach your daughters that love doesn’t pay at less than ten thousand a year. But you don’t expect them to believe you, and they don’t.
I am not sneering at you. I would not have it otherwise, for the world would be one half cheaper if women like you did not follow the perpetual instinct. True, civilization tends to curb this romantic desire, but when civilization runs against a passionate nature we have a tragedy. The world is sweeter, deeper, for that. Live and love, if you can, and give the lie to facts. Be restless, be insatiable, be wicked, but believe that your body and soul were meant for more than food and raiment; that somewhere, somehow, some day, you will meet the dream made real, and that he will unlock the secrets of this life.
It is late. I am tired. The noises of the city begin, far down in the darkness. This carries love.
NO. V. AROUSED.
(Miss Armstrong protests and invites.)
It is real, real, real. If I can say so, after going on all these years with but one idea (according to my good friends) of settling myself comfortably in some large home, shouldn’t you believe it? You have lived more interestingly than I, and you are not dependent, as most of us are. You really mock me through it all. You think I am worthy of only a kind of candy that you carry about for agreeable children, which you call love. To me, sir, it reads like an insult–your message of love tucked in concisely at the close.
No, keep to facts, for they are your metier. You make them interesting. Tell me more about your idle, contemplative self. And let me see you to-morrow at the Thorntons’. Leave your sombre eyes at home, and don’t expect infinities in tea-gabble. I saw you at the opera last night. For some moments, while Melba was singing, I wanted you and your confectioner’s love. That Melba might always sing, and the tide always flood the marshes! On the whole, I like candy. Send me a page of it.
NO. VI. AUTOBIOGRAPHIC.
(Eastlake, disregarding her comments, continues.)
Dear lady, did you ever read some stately bit of prose, which caught in its glamour of splendid words the vital, throbbing world of affairs and passions, some crystallization of a rich experience, and then by chance turn to the “newsy” column of an American newspaper? (Forsooth, these must be literary letters!) Well, that tells the sensations of going from Europe to Wabash. I had caught the sound of the greater harmony, or struggle, and I must accept the squeak of the melodeon. I did not think highly of myself; had started too far back in the race, and I knew that laborious years of intense zeal would place me only third class, or even lower, in any pursuit of the arts. Perhaps if I had felt that I could have made a good third class, I should have fought it out in Europe. There are some things man cannot accomplish, however, our optimistic national creed to the contrary. And there would have been something low in disappointing my father for such ignoble results, such imperfect satisfaction.
So to Wabash I went. I resolved to adapt myself to the billiards and whiskey of the Commercial Club, and to the desk in the inner office behind the glass partitions. And I like to think that I satisfied my father those two years in the mills. After a time I achieved a lazy content. At first I tried to deceive myself; to think that the newsy column of Wabash was as significant as the grand page of London or Paris. That simple yarn didn’t satisfy me many months.
Then my father died. I hung on at the mills for a time, until the strikes and the general depression gave me valid reasons for withdrawing. To skip details, I sold out my interests, and with my little capital came to Chicago. My income, still dependent in some part upon those Wabash mills, trembles back and forth in unstable equilibrium.
Chicago was too much like Wabash just then. I went to Florence to join a man, half German Jew, half American, wholly cosmopolite, whom I had known in Paris. His life was very thin: it consisted wholly of interests–a tenuous sort of existence. I can thank him for two things: that I did not remain forever in Italy, trying to say something new, and that I began a definite task. I should send you my book (now that it is out and people are talking about it), but it would bore you, and you would feel that you must chatter about it. It is a good piece of journeyman work. I gathered enough notes for another volume, and then I grew restless. Business called me home for a few months, so I came back to Chicago. Of all places! you say. Yes, to Chicago, to see this brutal whirlpool as it spins and spins. It has fascinated me, I admit, and I stay on–to live up among the chimneys, hanging out over the cornice of a twelve-story building; to soak myself in the steam and smoke of the prairie and in the noises of a city’s commerce.
Am I content? Yes, when I am writing to you; or when the pile of manuscripts at my side grows painfully page by page; or when, peering out of the fort-like embrasure, I can see the sun drenched in smoke and mist and the “sky-scrapers” gleam like the walls of a Colorado canon. I have enough to buy me existence, and at thirty I still find peepholes into hopes.
Are these enough facts for you? Shall I send you an inventory of my room, of my days, of my mental furniture? Some long afternoon I will spirit you up here in that little steel cage, and you shall peer out of my window, tapping your restless feet, while you sniff at the squalor below. You will move softly about, questioning the watercolors, the bits of bric-a-brac, the dusty manuscripts, the dull red hangings, not quite understanding the fox in his hole. You will gratefully catch the sounds from the mound below our feet, and when you say good-by and drop swiftly down those long stories you will gasp a little sigh of relief. You will pull down your veil and drive off to an afternoon tea, feeling that things as they are are very nice, and that a little Chicago mud is worth all the clay of the studios. And I? I shall take the roses out of the vase and throw them away. I shall say, “Enough!” But somehow you will have left a suggestion of love about the place. I shall fancy that I still hear your voice, which will be so far away dealing out banalities. I shall treasure the words you let wander heedlessly out of the window. I shall open my book and write, “To-day she came–beatissima hora.”
NO. VII. OF THE NATURE OF A CONFESSION.
(Miss Armstrong is nearing the close of her fifth season. Prospect and retrospect are equally uninviting. She wills to escape.)
I shall probably be thinking about the rents in your block, and wondering if the family had best put up a sky-scraper, instead of doing all the pretty little things you mention in your letter. At five-and-twenty one becomes practical, if one is a woman whose father has left barely enough to go around among two women who like luxury, and two greedy boys at college with expensive “careers” ahead. This letter finds me in the trough of the wave. I wonder if it’s what you call “the ennui of many dinners?” More likely it’s because we can’t keep our cottage at Sorrento. Well-a- day! it’s gray this morning, and I will write off a fit of the blues.
I think it’s about time to marry number nine. It would relieve the family immensely. I suspect they think I have had my share of fun. Probably you will take this as an exquisite joke, but ’tis the truth, alas!
Last night I was at the Hoffmeyers’ at dinner. It was slow. All such dinners are slow. The good Fraus don’t know how to mix the sheep and the goats. For a passing moment they talked about you and about your book in a puzzled way. They think you so clever and so odd. But I know how hollow he is, and how thin his fame! I got some points on the new L from the Hoffmeyers and young Mr. Knowlton. That was interesting and exciting. We dealt in millions as if they were checkers. These practical men have a better grip on life than the cynics and dreamers like you. You call them plebeian and bourgeois and Philistine and limited–all the bad names in your select vocabulary. But they know how to feel in the good, old, common-sense way. You’ve lost that. I like plebeian earnestness and push. I like success at something, and hearty enjoyment, and good dinners, and big men who talk about a million as if it were a ten-spot in the game.
You see I am looking for number nine and my four horses. Then I mean to invite you to my country house, to have a lot of “fat” girls to meet you who will talk slang at you, and one of them shall marry you–one whose father is a great newspaper man. And your new papa will start you in the business of making public opinion. You will play with that, too, but, then, you will be coining money.
No, not here in Chicago, but if you had talked to me at Sorrento as you write me from your sanctum on the roof, I might have listened and dreamed. The sea makes me believe and hope. I love it so! That’s why I made mamma take a house near the lake–to be near a little piece of infinity. Yes, if you had paddled me out of the harbor at Sorrento, some fine night when the swell was rippling in, like the groaning of a sleepy beast, and the hills were a-hush on the shore, then we might have gone on to that place you are so fond of, “the land east of the sun, and west of the moon.”
NO. VIII. BIOGRAPHIC AND JUDICIAL.
(Eastlake replies analytically.)
But don’t marry him until we are clear on all matters. I haven’t finished your case. And don’t marry that foreign-looking cavalier you were riding with to-day in the park. You are too American ever to be at home over there. You would smash their fragile china, and you wouldn’t understand. England might fit you, though, for England is something like that dark green, prairie park, with its regular, bushy trees against a Gainsborough sky. You live deeply in the fierce open air. The English like that. However, America must not lose you.
You it was, I am sure, who moved your family in that conventional pilgrimage of ambitious Chicagoans–west, south, north. Neither your father nor your mother would have stirred from sober little Grant Street had you not felt the pressing necessity for a career. Rumor got hold of you first on the South Side, and had it that you were experimenting with some small contractor. The explosion which followed reached me even in Vienna. Did you feel that you could go farther, or did you courageously run the risk of wrecking him then instead of wrecking yourself and him later? Oh well, he’s comfortably married now, and all the pain you gave him was probably educative. You may look at his flaunting granite house on that broad boulevard, and think well of your courage.
Your father died. You moved northward to that modest house tucked in lovingly under the ample shelter of the millionnaires on the Lake Shore Drive. I fancy there has always been the gambler in your nerves; that you have sacrificed your principle to getting a rapid return on your money. And you have dominated your family: you sent your two brothers to Harvard, and filled them with ambitions akin to yours. Now you are impatient because the thin ice cracks a bit.
But I have great faith: you will mend matters by some shrewd deal with the manipulators at Hoffmeyer’s, or by marrying number nine. You will do it honestly–I mean the marrying; for you will convince him that you love, so far as love is in you, and you will convince yourself that marriage, the end of it all, is unselfish, though prosaic. You will accept resignation with an occasional sigh, feeling that you have gone far, perhaps as far as you can go. I trust that solution will not come quickly, however, because I cannot regard it as a brilliant ending to your evolution. For you have kept yourself sweet and clean from fads, and mean pushing, and the vulgar machinery of society. You never forced your way or intrigued. You have talked and smiled and bewitched yourself straight to the point where you now are. You were eager and curious about pleasures, and the world has dealt liberally with you.
Were you perilously near the crisis when you wrote me? Did the reflective tone come because you were brought at last squarely to the mark, because you must decide what one of the possible conceptions of life you really want? Don’t think, I pray you; go straight on to the inevitable solution, for when you become conscious you are lost.
Do you wonder that I love you, my hybrid rose; that I follow the heavy petals as they push themselves out into their final bloom; that I gather the aroma to comfort my heart in these lifeless pages? I follow you about in your devious path from tea to dinner or dance, or I wait at the opera or theatre to watch for a new light in your face, to see your world written in a smile. You are dark, and winning, and strong. You are pagan in your love of sensuous, full things. You are grateful to the biting air as it touches your cheek and sends the blood leaping in glad life. You love water and fire and wind, elemental things, and you love them with fervor and passion. All this to the world! Much more intimate to me, who can read the letters you scrawl for the impudent, careless world. For deep down in the core of that rose there lies a soul that permeates it all–a longing, restless soul, one moment revealing a heaven that the next is shut out in dark despair.
Yes, keep the cottage by the sea for one more dream. Perchance I shall find something stable, eternal, something better than discontent and striving; for the sea is great and makes peace.
NO. IX. CRITICISM.
(Miss Armstrong vindicates herself by scorning.)
You are a tissue of phrases. You feel only words. You love! What mockery to hear you handle the worn, old words! You have secluded yourself in careful isolation from the human world you seem to despise. You have no right to its passions and solaces. Incarnate selfishness, dear friend, I suspect you are. You would not permit the disturbance of a ripple in the contemplative lake of your life such as love and marriage might bring.
Pray what right may you have to stew me in a saucepan up on your roof, and to send me flavors of myself done up nicely into little packages labelled deceitfully “love”? It is lucky that this time you have come across a woman who has played the game before, and can meet you point by point. But I am too weary to argue with a man who carries two-edged words, flattery on one side and sneers on the reverse. Mark this one thing, nevertheless: if I should decide to sell myself advantageously next season I should be infinitely better than you,–for I am only a woman.
NO. X. THE LIMITATION OF LIFE.
(Eastlake summarizes, and intends to conclude.)
My lady, my humor of to-day makes me take up the charges in your last letters; I will define, not defend, myself. You fall out with me because I am a dilettante (or many words to that one effect), and you abuse me because I deal in the form rather than the matter of love. Is that not just to you?
In short, I am not as your other admirers, and the variation in the species has lost the charm of novelty.
Believe me that I am honest to-day, at least; indeed, I think you will understand. Only the college boy who feeds on Oscar Wilde and sentimental pessimism has that disease of indifference with which you crudely charge me. It is a kind of chicken-pox, cousin-French to the evils of literary Paris. But I must not thank God too loudly, or you will think I am one with them at heart.
No, I am in earnest, in terrible earnest, about all this–I mean life and what to do with it. That is a great day when a man comes into his own, no matter how paltry the pittance may be the gods have given him–when he comes to know just how far he can go, and where lies his path of least resistance. That I know. I am tremendously sure of myself now, and, like your good business men, I go about my affairs and dispose of my life with its few energies in a cautious, economical way.
What is all this I make so much to-do about? Very little, I confess, but to me more serious than L’s and sky-scrapers; yes, than love. Mine is an infinite labor: first to shape the true tool, and then to master the material! I grant you I may die any day like a rat on a housetop, with only a bundle of musty papers, the tags of broken conversations, and one or two dead, distorted nerves. That is our common risk. But I shall accomplish as much of the road as God permits the snail, and I shall have moulded something; life will have justified itself to me, or I to life. But that is not our problem to-day.
Why do I isolate myself? Because a few pursuits in life are great taskmasters and jealous ones. A wise man who had felt that truth wrote about it once. I must husband my devotions: love, except the idea of love, is not for me; pleasure, except the idea of pleasure, is too keen for me; energy, except the ideas energy creates, is beyond me. I am limited, definite, alone, without you.
I confess that two passions are greater than any man, the passion for God and the passion of a great love. They send a man hungry and naked into the street, and make his subterfuges with existence ridiculous. How rarely they come! How inadequate the man who is mistaken about them! We peer into the corners of life after them, but they elude us. There are days of splendid consciousness, and we think we have them–then—-
No, it is foolish, bete, dear lady, to be deceived by a sentiment; better the comfortable activities of the world. They will suit you best; leave the other for the dream hidden in a glass of champagne.
But let me love you always. Let me fancy you, when I walk down these gleaming boulevards in the silent evenings, as you sit flashingly lovely by some soft lamplight, wrapped about in the cotton-wools of society. That will reconcile me to the roar of these noonday streets. The city exists for you.
NO. XI. UNSATISFIED.
(Miss Armstrong wills to drift.)
… Come to Sorrento….
NO. XII. THE ILLUSION.
(Eastlake resumes some weeks later. He has put into Bar Harbor on a yachting trip. He sits writing late at night by the light of the binnacle lamp.)
Sweet lady, a few hours ago we slipped in here past the dark shore of your village, in almost dead calm, just parting the heavy waters with our prow. It was the golden set of the summer afternoon: a thrush or two were already whistling clear vespers in he woods; all else was fruitfully calm.
And then, in the stillness of the ebb, we floated together, you and I, round that little lighthouse into the sheltering gloom of the woods. Then we drifted beyond it all, in serene solution of this world’s fret! To- morrows you may keep for another.
This night was richly mine. You brought your simple self, undisturbed by the people who expect of you, without your little airs of experience. I brought incense, words, devotion, and love. And I treasure now a few pure tones, some simple motions of your arm with the dripping paddle, a few pure feelings written on your face. That is all, but it is much. We got beyond necessity and the impertinent commonplace of Chicago. We had ourselves, and that was enough.
And to-night, as I lie here under the cool, complete heavens, with only a twinkling cottage light here and there in the bay to remind me of unrest, I see life afresh in the old, simple, eternal lines. These are our days of full consciousness.
Do you remember that clearing in the woods where the long weeds and grass were spotted with white stones–burial-place it was–their bright faces turned ever to the sunshine and the stars? They spoke of other lives than yours and mine. Forgotten little units in our disdainful world, we pass them scornfully by. Other lives, and perhaps better, do you think? For them the struggle never came which holds us in a fist of brass, and thrashes us up and down the pavement of life. Perhaps–can you not, at one great leap, fancy it?–two sincere souls could escape from this brass master, and live, unmindful of strife, for a little grave on a hillside in the end? They must be strong souls to renounce that cherished hope of triumph, to be content with the simple, antique things, just living and loving–the eternal and brave things; for, after all, what you and I burn for so restlessly is a makeshift ambition. We wish to go far, “to make the best of ourselves.” Why not, once for all, rely upon God to make? Why not live and rejoice?
And the little graves are not bad: to lie long years within sound of this great-hearted ocean, with the peaceful, upturned stones bearing this full legend, “This one loved and lived….” Forgive me for making you sad. Perhaps you merely laugh at the intoxication your clear air has brought about. Well, dearest lady, the ships are striking their eight bells for midnight, the gayest cottages are going out, light by light, and somewhere in the still harbor I can hear a fisherman laboriously sweeping his boat away to the ocean. Away!–that is the word for us: I, in this boat southward, and ever away, searching in grim fashion for an accounting with Fate; you, in your intrepid loveliness, to other lives. And if I return some weeks hence, when I have satisfied the importunate business claims, what then? Shall we slip the cables and drift quietly out “to the land east of the sun and west of the moon”?
NO. XIII. SANITY.
(Eastlake refuses Miss Armstrong’s last invitation, continues, and concludes.)
Last night was given to me for insight. You were brilliantly your best, and set in the meshes of gold and precious stones that the gods willed for you. There was not a false note, not an attribute wanting. Over your head were mellow, clear, electric lights that showed forth coldly your faultless suitability. From the exquisitely fit pearls about your neck to the scents of the wine and the flowers, all was as it should be. I watched your face warm with multifold impressions, your nostrils dilate with sensuousness, appreciation, your pagan head above the perfect bosom; about you the languid eyes of your well-fed neighbors.
The dusky recesses of the rooms, heavy with opulent comfort, stretched away from our long feast. There you could rest, effectually sheltered from the harsh noises of the world. And I rejoiced. Each minute I saw more clearly things as they are. I saw you giving the nicest dinners in Chicago, and scurrying through Europe, buying a dozen pictures here and there, building a great house, or perhaps, tired of Chicago, trying your luck in New York; but always pressing on, seizing this exasperating life, and tenaciously sucking out the rich enjoyments thereof! For the gold has entered your heart.
What splendid folly we played at Sorrento! If you had deceived yourself with a sentiment, how long would you have maintained the illusion? When would the morning have come for your restless eyes to stare out at the world in longing and the unuttered sorrow of regret? Ah, I touch you but with words! The cadence of a phrase warms your heart, and you fancy your emotion is supreme, inevitable. Nevertheless, you are a practical goddess: you can rise beyond the waves toward the glorious ether, but at night you sink back. ‘Tis alluring, but–eternal?
Few of us can risk being romantic. The penalty is too dreadful. To be successful, we must maintain the key of our loveliest enthusiasm without stimulants. You need the stimulants. You imagined that you were tired, that rest could come in a lover’s arms. Better the furs that are soft about your neck, for they never grow cold. Perchance the lover will come, also, as a prince with his princedom. It will be comfortable to have your cake and the frosting, too. If not, take the frosting; go glittering on with your pulses full of the joys, until you are old and fagged and the stupid world refuses to revolve. Remember my sure word that you were meant for dinners, for power and pleasure and excitement. Trust no will-o’-the- wisp that would lead you into the stony paths of romance.
Some days in the years to come I shall enter at your feasts and watch you in admiration and love. (For I shall always love you.) Then will stir in your heart a mislaid feeling of some joy untasted. But you will smile wisely, and marvel at my exact judgment. You will think of another world where words and emotions alone are alive, where it is always high tide, and you will be glad that you did not force the gates. For life is not always lyric. Farewell.
NO. XIV. THAT OTHER WORLD.
(Miss Armstrong writes with a calm heart.)
I have but a minute before I must go down to meet him. Then it will be settled. I can hear his voice now and mother’s. I must be quick.
So you tested me and found me wanting in “inevitableness.” I was too much clay, it seems, and “pagan.” What a strange word that is! You mean I love to enjoy; and, perhaps you are right, that I need my little world. Who knows? One cannot read the whole story–even you, dear master–until we are dead. We can never tell whether I am only frivolous and sensuous, or merely a woman who takes the best substitute at hand for life. I do not protest, and I think I never shall. I, too, am very sure–now. You have pointed out the path and I shall follow it to the end.
But one must have other moments, not of regret, but of wonder. Did you have too little faith? Am I so cheap and weak? Before you read this it will all be over…. Now and then it seems I want only a dress for my back, a bit of food, rest, and your smile. But you have judged otherwise, and perhaps you are right. At any rate, I will think so. Only I know that the hours will come when I shall wish that I might lie among those little white gravestones above the beach.
CHICAGO, November, 1893.