Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
In No Mans Land
By Francis Howard Williams (18441922)
[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1844. Died, 1922. From Boscosel.The Septameron. 1888.]
I WAS aroused from my reverie by a gentle double tap at my door. It was Watkins, my servant. He always knocked in that waya sort of unassertive deferential appeal of the knuckles, which announced a presence but scarcely asked an audiencealtogether a respectful and dutiful and valet-like knock. I bade Watkins enter, and, acting upon the permission, he brought in a crystal pitcher of ice-water on a salver, and deposited two fresh towels on the rack; then he inquired in the lowest of voices whether he could serve me further, and, receiving a negative reply, glided with the silentest of footsteps to the door. He was about to close it behind him, when he suddenly returned.
I beg your pardon, sir, he said, but I noticed this morning that you had neglected to open your mail of one day last week. It was covered by some magazines, and I thought perhaps you might have overlooked it.
He bowed again and left the room. I opened the first envelope; it contained a lead-pencil note scribbled in haste by an old friend, and referred to an appointment at luncheon. I knew the handwriting well, but somehow I could not for the life of me recall the appointment or even remember to have seen the writer for a long while. I opened the second envelope; it contained a bill. The third was larger; it was bordered with black, and bore a large seal impressed with a legend and crest. A sense of familiarity assailed my mind as I glanced at this seal. I paused before breaking it. It was very odd. I certainly knew the crest; the Latin motto, crowded in a little scroll beneath, had a singularly familiar sound. I read it aloud with a lilt and swing in my voice, just as I used to scan a line of Horace. It was all so natural; and yet years seemed to have intervened since last I saw itthis highly decorous legend with its ethical statement of an improbable virtue linked to an impossible valor. Why did my hand shake as I opened the envelope? Faugh! it did not shake; it was only that uncomfortable draught of air from somewhere. As I drew forth the note I saw that it was bordered with black to match the envelope. Having gotten myself into a funereal frame of mind, what was my surprise to find, upon unfolding the single heavy sheet, these engraved words of invitation:
I rubbed my eyes and read it again; then I went over it line by line. Dr. and Mrs. MacFarlane! I used to know them welllong ago. But nowthey had both been dead for years; at least so I had understood when I came back from the war. Could it be that I had been misinformed? Impossible! And yet here was the invitationyes, and the crest and legend; it all came back to me now. There was no mistake about them. Here was palpable evidence of vitality. But how strange to issue such an invitation on so gloomy a piece of stationery! And then the date. Heavens! I ejaculated as I again read the words, Thursday evening, January 24th! Why that is to-night!
My vexation at having overlooked this particular mail was mingled with a blank astonishment at the contents of this particular portion of it. Was I dreaming? I looked at my watch; it indicated four minutes past 9. Surely it must be much later. I held it to my ear; yes, it had stopped. What was I to do? I had already been guilty of an unintentional rudeness in not acknowledging the invitation; the only reparation was to go to the ball or reception, or whatever it might be, and explain my oversight. And then, I had an uncontrollable curiosity to solve the mystery which attended the whole matter. Whether owing to the unusual character of this emotion, or to the restoring qualities of the cigarettes, I felt much less weary than when I had flung myself into the easy-chair with the intention of there remaining until I retired for the night. I was actually conscious of a certain exhilarationa desire to emit superfluous energies in some of those impromptu calisthenic gyrations peculiar to the hopeful seasons of early youth. The work of transforming myself from a meditative bachelor en déshabille into a society man in evening dress was, therefore, neither onerous nor protracted, and before I was well aware of the rather abrupt alteration in the current of my thoughts and intentions, I found myself in a hansom rattling down the broad avenue upon which the mansion of Dr. MacFarlane used to front. And there it stood, as of yore, a few patches of snow lying snugly in the corners of the brown stone steps, the doors massively carved and emitting a line of bright light through the crack which was hospitably visible between them. I hastily dismissed my driver and mounted the steps; the doors were opened and I passed into the broad hallway; waves of delicious music came to me through the silken meshes of the portières; there was the sudden, dulcet odor of scores of roses and rare exotic plants, and as I passed with silent footfall up the luxuriously carpeted stairs I caught a glimpse of swaying figures, with oriental voluptuousness of motion marking time to the rise and fall of the music of the dance. The servant stationed at the door of the upper room added a smile of recognition to his respectful bow as he indicated the apartment in which I was to deposit my impedimenta. I remembered him wellan old family-piece with the MacFarlanes. It seemed to me years since I had seen him, but he looked no older. Hastily submitting to the removal of my wraps, I again descended the stairs, and in another moment was making my addresses and excuses to the host and hostess. Mrs. MacFarlane in her sweet gracious way was making me feel quite at home; she had always possessed that delightful savóir-faire which is of so much more value in society than any amount of mere courtesy. As for the Doctor, his rubicund face wore the same jovial smile and his voice was rounded out with the same hearty robustness which had so often been pleasing memories to me in hours of homesickness and sadness.
Ah! Dangerfield, my dear fellow; delighted to see you, Im sure, he said, as he took my hand in both his own. It is positively like old times, you know. We were half afraid we shouldnt succeed in getting you here, but Boscosel said he was sure you would arrive to-day, so we took chances in sending you an invitation. Ha! ha! ha! it does me good to see you, upon my soul. How are all the men at the club?
In a somewhat dazed voice I replied that I was delighted to again meet my good friend, Dr. MacFarlane, and that the men at the club were generally in good health so far as my knowledge extended. Then I asked myself the question, Who the deuce is Boscosel? and turned to reply to a pleasant remark from my hostess.
Ah! madam, I said, you were always too good. And while speaking of good nature let me apologize for having so far trespassed upon yours. I assure you I was thoroughly mortified when I discovered that I had not replied to your invitation for this evening.
I could not help an inward sentiment of satisfaction that somebody understood the nature of the case. Certainly I did not. What on earth did she mean by saying that they didnt expect a reply? I knew that I was regarded as being a most punctilious person in matters of social etiquette; why, then, should it be assumed as a matter of course that I would be guilty of a flagrant breach of the most usual requirements of society?
Several couples were promenading up and down, and making desperate attempts at conversation between the enforced pauses for breath which their recent dancing rendered necessary. One exceedingly exquisite young man was sending a tiny spray of cologne-water upon the flushed brow of the fair partner at his side, while another exceedingly exquisite young man languidly fanned surrounding space with the brim of his opera-hat, evidently under the pleasing delusion that his lady was catching a portion of the breeze. On the stairway couples were ranged like rising parterres of flowers, looking down or up or obliquely at each other, according to the exigencies of posture, but never under any circumstances getting on a level; the regard passionné, I have observed, invariably demands an angle in order to be effective. Servants were handing light refreshments on parti-colored cut-glass, and the couples on the stairs were sliding from ices to flirtation in a manner at once canonical and variegated.
I paused for a moment watching the scene with the eye of a man partly philosophical by nature and partly blasé through experience. Then, as there came a pause in the music, and additional couples began wandering out in search of more air, I entered the drawing-room intending to seek out the hostess of the evening, of whom I much desired to learn certain things which were just now puzzling me sorely. I had hardly passed through the doorway, however, when a familiar voice said:
Oh, Miss Denise! I cried. Is it possible, or do my eyes deceive me? IreallyI didnt expect topardon me; this is very sudden. I have no doubt the last words must have appeared quite too emotional for the occasion, for, beyond a pleasant acquaintanceship, there was no reason why a meeting with Denise Fleury should have especially unnerved meno reason at all, exceptexcept that she had been dead for a year!
I felt the color mount to my hair, and then I knew that I grew pale. I knew, too, that Denise noticed my embarrassment. She was French in the quickness of her apprehension as well as in her name and ancestry. With excellent tact she covered my confusion by a volume of small-talk, and then, turning to a young lady of apparently her own age who stood by her side, she begged to present me.
Your mother! Then I became aware of what a horrible mess I was making, and by a desperate effort managed to bow and express the happiness I experienced in meeting Madame Fleury. But my dismay was too evident for concealment, and Madame Fleury, smiling the while with charming graciousness, said softly, in her pretty French accent:
Ah, yes; I see, I said, with an attempt at a sympathetic intonation and an inward conviction that I certainly did not see. Gracefully and deftly the two ladies led the conversation into other channels, and I soon found myself chatting in the pleasantest manner possible, imparting little items of gossip interesting to a society woman and of occurrence too recent for the personal knowledge of Denise.
Then the musicians began a delicious Strauss, and I asked the favor of a waltz, taking out first Madame Fleury as a tribute to her grotesquely matronly distinction; then coming back for her daughter of equal years. It was all very odd and weird; but the music was exceedingly fine, and every surrounding in such perfect taste! Presently another man was brought up to be presented, and I once more found myself seeking the cooler atmosphere of the halls and ante-rooms. Then I wandered towards the conservatory, glimpses of whose arboreal loveliness were visible through an archway at the end of the corridor. My brain seemed on fire; once I touched the heavy panellings to make sure that I was surrounded by something more substantial than the mere ghosts of things. As I passed under the arch, the heavy, sense-compelling air of exotic plants in bloom struck me like a perfume-laden breeze from the tropics. Great palms spread their broad leaves above me in hospitable welcome; rare ferns fluttered in the slight breath of air which came from a single aperture near the crystal roof; many-petalled roses bowed in the gentlest of obeisances and seemed to follow me with their tender eyes. I could see no one in the conservatory, and felt absolute relief at the thought of being for a moment away from the throng. What does it mean? I queried, half aloud. Is Life, then, but a phantomLove a dream? The dulcet waves of music came chastened by distance into a mere intimation of the waltza suggestion of rhythmic arrangement so rounded and blurred at the angles as to leave only an impression of symmetry dissolving and reforming on the mellifluous chaos of sweet sound. I passed completely across the conservatory to the farther side. I wanted to find some spot where I could be entirely alone for a few moments. I saw no one. A sense of relief mingled with the consciousness of the great mental pressure under which I labored. There was a large tropical plant at the angle of the apartment nearest me, and a low rustic bench seemed to invite rest. I walked towards it, and as I bent my head to escape the broad, drooping luxuriousness of the plant, I suddenly observed the figure of a woman standing with her back towards me at the opposite side of the aisle. Apparently she had not heard my approach, for she continued pulling the petals gently one by one from a tender white flower in her hand. The position which she occupied relatively to the direction whence I came rendered it impossible for either of us to have observed the other until I was within a few feet of her, and I was therefore placed in the rather embarrassing predicament of being unable either to retreat or to advance without the appearance of a rude intrusion. Under these circumstances I stood perfectly still and regarded her in silence. The outlines of her figure indicated that she was quite young, though I could form no idea otherwise, even her profile being hidden. Her hair was very beautiful, and was worn high from the neck and twisted simply after the manner of classic statues. A single silver arrow was shot through the coils and appeared to be the only means of keeping them from falling about her shoulders, and I noticed how the shades lightened and turned to burnished copper where a soft short tress half concealed the delicate upper curve of the ear. I cannot tell what there was in the poise of her figurein the shadows underlying her hairwhich so enthralled me; I only know that I experienced the sense of an absolute realization of an idealthe answer to an unframed question of my soul. Quietly she pulled away the petals of the flower; they fluttered and dropped at her feet like leaves from a recording angels book of fate; then she came to the end and dropped the bare stem too; in doing this her left hand was brought to my view, and I noted how soft and white and blue-veined it was; then I felt a mighty throb in my pulses, a sudden suffocation as of dust in my throat; my brain reeled, and the light spans of the conservatory ceiling seemed rocking about and threatening a universal crash. I should have cried out, I think, but that my lips refused their office. Yet, after all, why should I so madly sway before the breath of Destiny? That which I saw upon one of her slender fingers was but a gew-gaw,a golden serpent wrapped in two folds, and bearing little translucent, malignant garnets in its head for eyes. It seemed to cleave very closely to the soft, perfect texture of her flesh, and, in accordance with a somewhat musty symbolism, held its tail in its mouth to indicate Eternity. There was little in such a trinket to move a man as I was moved. And yet I knew that the great climacteric of my existence had arrived. I stood face to face with a problem so profound and with a possibility so ecstatic that for me the universe seemed trembling on its foundations. For a moment I wavered, and then I had become master of the situation and of myself. With perfect calmness I stepped close to her side and very gently spoke her name:
She started, but it was apparently owing rather to the unexpectedness of any salutation than to the tones of this particular one. She turned almost slowly and looked me deliberately in the eyes. It was a look of recognition from the firstfull of a light as tender as the dawnreplete with the passion which makes man divine. I saw her then as I had seen her twenty years before. Time had stood still for her; she was very beautiful, and as she let her eyes rest upon me, there was a gradual heightening of the color at her temples which brought into more pronounced contrast the whiteness of her throat.
I heard the music stealing brokenly through the broad leaves around us; there was a smell of roses in the heavy air. I did not speakonly spread my arms abroad and took Helen to my breast. I noted the quick, broken lisp of her indrawn breath, after the manner of women when they yield to an instinctive demand of sense; I felt the weight of her head upon my shoulder, the slight pressure of her bosom against mine. I folded the splendor of her womanhood closely within my embrace, conscious that though another had claimed her once, she yet was mine forever.
I drew her to the rustic bench, and there, close to my heart, she told me all the secrets of her own. I cannot say how long we remained, but there came a loud blare of the brasses from the orchestra in the drawing-room, as though a finale had been reached. I started. There was the hum of distant talk from many lipsthe confused, muffled sound of many steps. Still we lingered. Presently I heard the low, scornful laugh of a mans voice close to us; it fell upon the air with metallic distinctness, repressed to the limits of decorous requirement, yet ironical, bitter, terrible in its suggestion. Helen, too, heard it and looked up. There in the doorway stood a man regarding us intently. His eyes were black and piercing, his hair cropped closely and brushed straight up, his nose slightly aquiline and almost concealing the central portion of his black moustache. He was dressed faultlessly.
I pressed my hand to my brow. Time had no meaning to her consciousness. It had ceased for her. And yet, and yetthere in the angle stood a massive clock, antique in carving and splendid with ornaments of brass. It was one of those ancient family-pieces whose face exhibits periodically the all-too-rotund visage of the placid moon between impossibly bespangled firmaments, and beneath whose solemn second-hand the month and day appear. Strange that it should be here, where no one seemed conscious of the fact it recorded.
Herebut where? I had an indistinct impression that I ought at least to make my adieus to Dr. and Mrs. MacFarlane, but then it was dark and all was so silent, so very silent. I leaned close and felt Helens breath upon my cheek. Her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. I kissed her on the lips, and then looked at the ancient clock to find the answer to my query. The hour-hand rested upon the characters IX, the minute-hand had not yet reached the I. Quickly my glance sought the slender steel pointer which, in its special dial, tells off the seconds as the Genius of Humanity might reckon his sins on the rosary of time. It moved not at all, only trembled upon its axis, like the delicate needle of a compass jarred by the passing of a heavy step. I listened; there was no sound save the quick sibilant vibration of Helens breath as she leaned nearer and reached her hands towards my face. I looked through the pane near the base of the clock-case. There in full view hung the pendulum, vertical, motionless. Again I glanced at the face. In an oblong opening I saw the abbreviations Thurs., Jan., and immediately beneath appeared the figures 24. Then I understood. Time had ceased for me too. I had died on the evening of Thursday, January 24th, 1884, at four minutes after nine oclock.