Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
A Maid of Modern Athens
By Edgar Evertson Saltus (18551921)
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1855. Died there, 1921. A Transient Guest, and Other Episodes. 1889.]
IT was this way, she said, and as she spoke she stooped and flicked a speck of dust from her habit. It was this way: The existence which I lead in the minds of other people is absolutely of no importance whatever. Now wait: I care a great deal whether school keeps or not, but in caring I try chiefly to be true to myself. I may stumble; I may not. In any event I seek the best. As for the scandal of which you speak, that is nonsense. There is no criterion. That which is permissible here is inhibited yonder, and what is permissible yonder is inhibited here. Scandal, indeed!
There was something about her that stirred the pulse. She was fair; the sort of girl whose photograph is an abomination, and yet in whose face and being a charm resides, a charm intangible and coercive, inciting to better things. A Joan of Arc in a tailor-made gown.
You remember how it was when we were younger Youwell, there is no use in going into that. You had a mother to think for you; I had no one. I had to solve problems unassisted. The weightiest of all was marriage, and that, in my quality of heiress, I found perplexing to a degree. But how is it possible, I asked myself, how can a girl pledge her life to a man of whom she knows absolutely nothing? For, practically speaking, what does the average girl know of the man whose name she takes? It may be different in the country; but in town! Listen to me; a girl comes out, as the saying is; she meets a number of men, the majority of whom are more or less agreeable and well-bredwhen she is present. But what are they when she is not? At dinners and routs, or when she receives them in her own house, they are at their best; if they are not they stay away. It is not so difficult to be agreeable once in awhile, but to be so always is a question not of mask but of nature. It seems to me that when an intelligent woman admires her brother it is because that brother is really an admirable man. Has she not every opportunity of judging? But what opportunity is given to the girl whom a man happens to take in and out at dinner, or whom she sees for an hour or two now and then? You must admit that her facilities are slight. That was the way it was with me, and that was the way I fancied it would continue to be, and I determined that it was better to remain spinster forever than to take a man on trust and find that trust misplaced. Suspicious? No, I am not suspicious. When your husband bought this property did you think him suspicious because he had the title searched? Very good; then perhaps you will tell me that the marriage contract is less important than the conveyance of real estate? Besides, my doubts on the subject of love would have defied a catalogue. When I read of the follies and transports of which it was reported to be the prime factor, I was puzzled. It seemed to me that I had either a fibre more or a fibre less than other girls, I could not comprehend. No man I had ever metand certainly I had met manyhad ever caused me so much as a fleeting emotion. There were men with whom I found speech agreeable and argument a pleasure, but, had they worn frocks instead of trousers, such enjoyment as I experienced would have been unimpaired. You see, it was purely mental. And whenthere, I remember one man in particular. As Stella said of Swift, he could talk beautifully about a broomstick. He knew the reason of things; he was up in cuneiform inscriptions and at home with meteorites; he was not prosy, and, what is more to the point, he never treated a subject as though it were a matter of life and death. He was not bad-looking, either, and he was the only man of my acquaintance who both understood Kant and got his coats from Poole. That man I liked very much. He was better than a book. I could ask him questions, a thing you cant do even of an encyclopædia. One fine day the personal pronoun cropped out. We had been discussing Herbert Spencers theory of conceivability, and abruptly, with an inappositeness which, now I think of it, would have been admirable on the stage, but which in the drawing-room was certainly misplaced, he asked me to take a walk with him down the aisle of the swellest church in the commonwealth. I mourned his loss, as we say. But wasnt it stupid of him? But what does get into men? Why should they think that, because a girl is liberal with odd evenings, she is pining for the marriage covenant?
That episode gave me food for thought. Hm. By-and-by the scene was occupied by a young man who was an authority on orchids, and wrote sonnets for the Interstate. My dear, a more guileful little wretch never breathed. When my previous young man disappeared, I felt that I had been hasty. I desired nothing so much as an increase in my store of knowledge, and I determined that if another opportunity occurred I would not be in such a hurry to shut the door on entertaining developments. Consequently, when my poet turned up I was us demure as you please. He was a fox, that man. He began with the fixed purpose of irritating me into liking him. The tactics he displayed were unique. He never came when I expected him, and when he did come he was careful to go just when he thought he had scored a point. If any other man happened in, he first eclipsed him and then left him to me. I saw through that game at once. He understood perfectly that if I preferred the other man I was all the more obliged to him for going, and if I preferred him to the other man I was the sorrier to see him leave. In addition to this, whatever subject I broached, he led it by tangential flights to Love. That Machiavelli en herbe knew that to talk love is to make love. And talk of love he did, but in the most impersonal manner. To hear him descant you would have thought his wings were sprouting. Love, as he expressed it, was a sentiment which ennobled every other; a purifying and exalting light. It was the most gracious of despots. It banished the material; it beckoned to the ideal. It turned satiety into a vagabond that had not where to lay its head. It was the reduction of the world, creation, and all the universe to a single being. It was an enchanted upland, inhibited to the herd. It was a chimera to the vulgar, a crown to the refined. A perfect lover, he said, must needs be an aristocrat. And if you will believe me, I actually thought he meant what he said. In spite of myself, I was becoming interested. There were new horizons before me. I seemed to discern something hitherto unseen. My dear, for the moment I felt myself going. I was at the foot of his enchanted upland. I was almost willing to take him for guide. At first I had been merely amused. Once, even, when he quoted the Two souls with but a single thought, I suggested that that must mean but half a thought apiece. The quiet dignity which he then displayed almost fetched me. He had the air of a prelate in whose presence an oaf has trampled on a crucifix. He kept up that sort of thing for two months. To me his sincerity was beyond peradventure. Not once did he speak in a personal way. I was beginning to wonder when he would stop beating about the bush; and I not only wondered, I believe I even wished that he would be a little more enterprising and a trifle less immaterial. Presently I detected a symptom or two which told me that the end of the beginning was in sight. I suppose my manner was more encouraging. In any event, one evening he took my hand and kissed it. From nine-and-ninety men out of a hundred I should have thought nothing of such a thing. In Europe it is an empty homage, a pantomime expressive of thanks. As I say, then, in any other man I should not have given it a second thought, but he had never done it before.
The next day I lunched with Mrs. Bunker Hill. I mentioned his name; I suppose it was running in my mind. And then, my dear, Fanny began. Well, the things she told me about that transcendental young man were of such a nature that when he next called I was not at home. He came again, of course. And again. He sent me a note, which I returned unopened. That, I confess, was a foolish thing to do. It showed him that I was annoyed. I might better have left it unanswered. After all, there is nothing so impenetrable as silence. Finally, he got one of his friends to come and reconnoitre. Indeed, he did not desist until I had an opportunity of cutting him dead. I was angry, I admit it. And it was after that little experience that I determined, the next time I felt myself going, I would make sure beforehand where I was going to. Hm. I wonder what his sister thought of him. You see, it was not that I had fallen in love; the word was as unintelligible to me as before, but I had fancied that, through him, I might intercept some inkling of its meaning, and I was put out at having been tricked. Ach! diese Männer!
Beneath descending night the sky was gold-barred and green. In the east the moon glittered like a sickle of tin. The air was warm and freighted with the odors of August. You could hear the crickets hum, and here and there was the spark of a fire-fly gyrating in loops of flame. From across the meadows came the slumbrous tinkle of a bell.
She raised a gloved hand to her brow and looked down at the yellow road. To one who loved her, the Helen for whom the war of the world was fought was not so fair as she. And presently the hand moved about the brow, and, resting a seconds space on the coil just above the neck, fell again to her side.
Well, she continued, you can see how it was. Even before the illusion, disillusionment had come. That winter I went with the Bunker Hills to Monaco. Were it not for the riff-raff, that place would be a paradise in duodecimo. We had a villa, of course. One evening, shortly after our arrival, we went to the Casino. For the fun of the thing I put some money on the Trente et Quarante. I did nothing but win. It was tiresome; I would rather have lost; I had to speak to the dealer, and that, as you can fancy, was not to my liking. There was a great crowd. One little old woman put money wherever I did. She won a lot, too. But one man, whom I could not help noticing, backed red when I was on black, and vice versa. He did it persistently, intentionally, and he lost every time. Finally one of the croupiers told me that my stake was above the maximum, and asked how much I would risk. I was tired of answering his questions, and I turned away. A lackey followed me with a salver covered with gold and notesthe money I had won. I didnt want it; I had not even a pocket to put it in, and the purse which I held in my hand would not have held a fraction of it. It was a nuisance. I turned it over to Bunker, and presently we all went out on the terrace that overhangs the sea. It was a perfect night. In the air was a caress, and from the Mediterranean came a tonic. While I was enjoying it all, a beggar ambled up on a crutch and begged a franc. I took from Bunker the money I had won and gave him thirty thousand. You should have heard Bunker then. I actually believe that if I had been his wife instead of his guest he would have struck me. I suppose it was an absurd thing to do. But the next time you are in search of a new sensation, do something of the same sort. The beggar became transfigured. He looked at the gold and notes, and then at me. I do not think I shall ever forget the expression in his face. Did you ever see a child asleepa child to whom some wonderful dream has come? It was at once infantile and radiant. And all the while Bunker was abusing me like a pickpocket. The beggar gave me one look, dropped on his knees, caught the hem of my skirt, kissed it, threw away his crutch, and ran. I burst out laughing, and Bunker, in spite of his rage, burst out laughing too. Fanny called us a pair of idiots, and said that if I was as lavish as that it would be better and wiser, and far more Christian, to keep my money for indigent and deserving Bostonese than to bestow it as a premium on Monacean vice and effrontery. Just as she was working herself into big words and short sentences, the man whom I had noticed at the tables came along. He had met her before, and now, as he expressed it, he precipitated himself to renew the expression of his homage. Fanny, after introducing him to me, began at once on the tale of my misconduct. He had a complexion of the cream-tint order, and a mustache blacker than hate. He was a Florentine, I discovered, a marquis with a name made up of vs, sonorous os, and ns. We had found a table, and Bunker ordered some ices. The night was really so perfect, and the ice so good, that, like Mme. de Staël over her sherbet in moonlit Venice, I almost wished it were a sin to sit there. The marquis was in very good form and inclined to do the devoted on the slightest provocation.
The next day he lunched with us, and came again in the evening. In addition to his marquisate, he had a fluty tenorino voice; what they call a voix de salon. He sang all sorts of things for us, and he sang them very well. When the air was lively he looked at Fanny, when it was sentimental he looked at me. Thereafter I saw a great deal of him. One day we would make up a party for Nice, on another we would go to San Remo, or else back in the mountains, or to Grasse. Of course, as you know, customs over there are such that he had no opportunity of being alone with me, even for a second; but he had an art of making love in public which must have been the result of long practice. It was both open and discreet. It was not in words; it was in the inflection of the voice and in the paying of the thousand and one little attentions which foreigners perform so well. Now, to me, a tiara might be becoming, but it is an ornament for which I have never felt the vaguest covetousness. Moreover, I had no intention of marrying an Italian, however fabulous the ancestry of that Italian might be. And, besides, the attentions of which I was the apparent object were, I knew, addressed less to me than to the blue eyes of my check-book. The Florentine nobleman who is disposed to marry a dowerless American is yet to be heard from. This by the way. However, I accepted the attentions with becoming grace, and marked the cunning of his tricks. One evening he did not put in an appearance, but at midnight, I heard, on the road before my window, the tinkle of a guitar. I did not need to peer through the curtains to know from whom it came. First he sang a song of Tostis, and then the serenade from Don Pasquale:
Com è gentil, la notte in mezz Aprile.
* * * * *
Poi quando sarò morto, tu piangerai,
Ma ritornarmi in vita, tu non potrai.
Sentimental? Yes, sentimental to the last degree. But on the Riviera, in spring, and at night, ones fancy turns to that sort of thing with astounding ease. I listened with unalloyed pleasure. It was like a Boccaccian echo. And as I listened I wondered whether I should ever learn what love might be. The idea of taking a course of lessons from a man who strummed on a guitar in front of my window never entered my head. The next day Fanny came to me in a state of great excitement. The guitarist, it appeared, had, with all proper and due formality, asked leave to place his coronet at my feet. Ce que jai ri!
You can hear Fanny from here. She accused me of flirting with the man. You have no right, she said, to treat him as though he were a college boy at Mt. Desert. What he had done to make her so vicious I never discovered. It must have been the title; a title always went to her head. Poor Fanny! That evening, when he came, she declined to be present. I had to see him alone. My dear, he was too funny. He had prepared a little speech which he got off very well, only at the end of it he lapsed into English. We will loaf, he said, we will be always loafers. He meant, of course, to assert that we should love and be always lovers, but the intricacies of our pronunciation were too much for him. I could have died, it was so amusing. I managed, however, to keep a straight face. Marquis, I said, I am deeply honored, but your invitation is one that I am unable to accept. A more astounded man you never saw. He really thought that he had but to ask, and it would be given. He declined to take No for an answer. He said he would wait. Actually, he was so pertinacious that I had to drag Fanny up to Paris. He followed us in the next train. There was no getting rid of him at all. If he sent me one note he sent me a hundred, and notes ten pages each, at the very least. Finally, as you heard, he tried the dramatic. One afternoon, while I was out shopping, he bribed a waiter at the hotel where we lodged. When I returned, there he was, waiting for me. At last, he cried, at last we are face to face. You think I do not love. Cruel one, behold me! I love as no mortal ever loved before. See, I die at your feet! And there, before my very eyes, he whipped out a pistol, pulled the trigger, tumbled over and seemed fully disposed to carry out the programme to the end. He had shot himself; there was no doubt about that; but he had shot himself in such an intelligent manner that, though there was blood enough to frighten a sensitive young person out of her wits, yet of danger there was none at all. Talk to me about comedians!
It was after that episode that I returned to Beacon street. It was there that what you are pleased to call the scandal began. Fanny, whose desire to marry me off was simply epic, one day caught an Englishman; young, so she said, and good-looking. And that Englishman, she made up her mind, I should ensnare. Fanny, as you know, was possessed with an ungratified desire to pay annual visits to swell country houses on the other side. Hence, I suppose, her efforts. Having caught the Englishman, the next step was to serve him up in becoming form. To that end she gave a tentative dinner. I got to it late; in fact, I was the last to arrive. Fanny, I could see, was in a state of feverish excitement. She presented to me one or two men, whose names I did not catch, and a moment later one of them gave me his arm. When we were seated at table, and while he was sticking a chrysanthemum in his button-hole, I glanced at the card on his plate. It bore for legend Lord Alfred Harrow. It was then I took my first look at him. My dear, he was the ugliest man I have ever seen; he was so ugly that he was positively attractive. His mouth was large enough to sing a duet, but his teeth were whiter than mine.
There was no hair on his face, and his features were those of a middle-aged wizard. But about him was the atmosphere of health, of strength, too, and his hands, though bronzed and sinewy, were perfect. I knew he was a thoroughbred at once. And how do you like the States? I asked. He was squeezing some lemon on an oyster, and I noticed that when some white wine was offered him he turned the glass upside down. Very much, he answered; and you? There was more of that sort of thing, and finally I asked him if, like other Englishmen, he thought that Boston suggested one of his provincial towns. There seems to be some mistake, he said. I was going into the Somerset five minutes ago when Hill corralled me. He told me that his wife was giving a dinner, and that at the last moment one of the bidden had wired to the effect that he was prevented from coming. Whereupon Mrs. Hill had packed him off to the club, with instructions to bring back the first man he met. I happened to be that man. He took up the card. Lord Alfred is, I fancy, the delinquent. My name, he added, is Mr. StittFerris Stitt, he continued, as though apologizing for its inconsequence.
After that we got on famously. In a day or two he came to the house. When he left the world was larger. He knew nothing about poetry. He had never so much as heard of Fichte. Herbert Spencer was to him a name and nothing more. The only works of ornamental literature which he seemed to have read were the Arabian Nights, which he had forgotten, and something of Dickens, which had put him to sleep. He did not know one note of music from another. But he had hunted big game in Africa, in Bengal, and he had penetrated Thibet. He had been in Iceland and among the Caribs. No carpet-knight was he.
My dear, I had not seen him five times before I felt myself going. I think he knew it. But I had been cheated before, and so well that I held on with all my strength. While I was holding on, he disappeared. Not a word, not a line, not even so much as a p. p. c. In the course of time, through the merest accident, I learned that he was in Yucatan. Six months later I caught a glimpse of him in the street. Presently he called.
At once, without so much as a preamble, he told me he had gone away that in absence he might learn whether I was as dear to him as he thought. He hesitated a moment. Will you let me love you? he asked. You have been prudent, I answered; let me be prudent, too. Then I told him of my disenchantments. I told him how difficult I found it to discover what men really were. I told him, as I have told you, that it seemed to me, if an intelligent girl admired her brother, it was because that brother was assuredly an admirable man. And I added that I would accept no man until I had the same opportunities of judging him as a sister has of judging her brother. Besides, I said, I have yet to know what love may be. It was then that we made the agreement of which you disapprove. After all, it was my own suggestion, and, if unconventional, in what does the criterion consist? I was acting for the best. You do not imagine, do you, that I regret it?
I took Mary, who, you must admit, is respectability personified, and whom I had long since elevated from nurse to sheep-dogI took Mary, and, together, all three of us, we went abroad. It is in travelling that you get to know a man. Each evening, when he said good-night, my admiration had increased. From England, as you know, we went straight to India. It was a long trip, I had heard, but to me it seemed needlessly brief. During the entire journey I studied him as one studies a new science. I watched him as a cat watches a mouse. Not once did he do the slightest thing that jarred. During the entire journey he did not so much as attempt to take my hand in his. He knew, I suppose, as I knew, that if the time ever came I would give it unasked.
One evening, on going to my stateroom, I found I had left my vinaigrette on deck. Mary was asleep. I went back for it alone. It was very dark. On the way to where I had sat I heard his voice; he was talking to one of the passengers. In spite of myself I listened to what he was saying. I listened for nearly an hour. Not one word was there in it all that he could not have said to me. When I got back to my cabin I wondered whether it might not be that he knew I was standing there. Yes, I admit, I was suspicious; but circumstances had made me so. Oh, he has forgiven me since.
When we landed our journey had practically begun. You see, I was still unassured. Yet he was irreproachable and ever the same. Well, the details are unimportant. One day, at Benares, he heard that leopards had been seen in the neighborhood of a lake some fifteen or twenty miles out. At once he was for having a crack at them. I determined to accompany him. He was surprised at first, and objected a little, but I managed, as I usually do, to have my own way. It was night when we got there. We left the horses with the guide, and, noiselessly as ghosts, we stole through a coppice which hid the lake from view. Almost at the waters edge we crouched and waited. The stars were white as lilies and splendid as trembling gems. The silence was as absolute as might. How long we waited I cannot now recall. I think I dreamed a bit with open eyes. Then dimly I became conscious of something moving in the distance. The moon had risen like a balloon of gold, and in the air was the scent of sandal. Slowly, with an indolent grace of its own, that something neared the opposite shore. As it reached the water it stopped, arched its back, and turned. I saw then that it was a leopard. No, my dear, you can form no idea of the beauty of that beast. And then suddenly it threw its head back and called. It lapped the water, and then with its tongue gave its fore paw one long, lustrous lick, and called again; a call that was echoless, yet so resonant I felt it thrill my finger-tips. In a moment its mate sprang from the shadows. If the first comer was beautiful, then this one was the ideal. There they stood, caressing each other with amber, insatiate eyes. It was like a scene in fairyland. And as I watched them I felt a movement at my side. I turned. He had taken aim and was about to fire, but, us I turned, he turned to me. Those beasts, I told myself, are far too fair for death; yet I said not a word. My dear, he read my unuttered wish, he lowered the gun, and thenthen, for the first time, I knew what love might be . Theres the dog-cart now. Come over and dine to-morrow. If you care to, Ferris will show you the gun.