Edgar Saltus.

The Truth About Tristrem Varick: A Novel



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"I wish you had come in time to see the original. She never suspected that she had posed as a model, and though her window was just opposite mine, I believe she did not so much as pay me the compliment of being aware of my existence. There were days when she sat hour after hour looking out at the lake, almost motionless, in the very attitude that I wanted. It was just as though she were repeating the phrase that Flaubert puts in the Sphinx's mouth, 'I am guarding my secret – I calculate and I dream.' Wasn't it odd, after all, that I should have found her in that hap-hazard way?"

"It was odd," Tristrem answered; "who was she?"

"I don't know. French, I fancy. Her name was Dupont, or Duflot – something utterly bourgeois. There was an old lady with her, her mother, I suppose. I remember, at table d'h?te one evening, a Russian woman, with an 'itch' in her name, said she did not think she was comme il faut. 'She is comme il m'en faut,' I answered, and mentally I added, 'which is a deuced sight more than I can say of you, who are comme il n'en faut pas.' The Russian woman was indignant at her, I presume, because she did not come to the public table. You know that feeling, 'If it's good enough for me, it's good enough for you.' But my sphinx not only did not appear at table d'h?te, she did not put her foot outside of the ch?let. One bright morning she disappeared from the window, and a few days later I heard that she had been confined. Shortly after she went away. It did not matter, though, I had her face. Let me give you another glass of Monkenkloster."

"She was married, then?"

"Yes, her husband was probably some brute that did not know how to appreciate her. I don't mean, though, that she looked unhappy. She looked impassible, she looked exactly the way I wanted to have her look. If you have finished your coffee, come up to my little atelier. I wish you could see the picture by daylight, but you may be able to get an idea of it from the candles." And as Mr. Yorke led the way, he added, confidentially, "I should really like to have your opinion."

The atelier to which Yorke had alluded as "little" was, so well as Tristrem could discern in the darkness, rather spacious than otherwise. He loitered in the door-way until his companion had lighted and arranged the candles, and then, under his guidance, went forward to admire. The picture, which stood on an easel, was really excellent; so good, in fact, that Tristrem no sooner saw the face of the sphinx than to his ears came the hum of insects, the murmur of distant waters. It was Viola Raritan to the life.

"She guarded her secret, indeed," he muttered, huskily. And when Yorke, surprised at such a criticism, turned to him for an explanation, he had just time to break his fall. Tristrem had fallen like a log.

As he groped back through a roar and turmoil to consciousness again, he thought that he was dead and that this was the tomb. "That Monkenkloster must have been too much for him," he heard Yorke say, in German, and then some answer came to him in sympathetic gutturals.

He opened his eyes ever so little, and then let the lids close down. Had he been in a nightmare, he wondered, or was it Viola? "He's coming too," he heard Yorke say. "Yes, I am quite right now," he answered, and he raised himself on his elbow. "I think," he continued, "that I had better get to my room."

"Nonsense. You must lie still awhile."

For the moment Tristrem was too weak to rebel, and he fell back again on the lounge on which he had been placed, and from which he had half arisen. Was it a dream, or was it the real? "There, I am better now," he said at last; "I wonder, I – Would you mind ordering me a glass of brandy?"

"Why, there's a carafon of it here. I thought you had had too much of that wine."

Some drink was then brought him, which he swallowed at a gulp. Under its influence his strength returned.

"I am sorry to have put you to so much trouble," he said collectedly to Yorke and to a waiter who had been summoned to his assistance; "I am quite myself now." He stood up again and the waiter, seeing that he was fully restored, withdrew. When the door closed behind him, Tristrem went boldly back to the picture.

It was as Yorke had described it. In the background was a sunset made of cymbal strokes of vermilion, splattered with gold, and seamed with fantasies of red. In the foreground fluttered a chimera, so artfully done that one almost heard the whir of its wings. And beneath it crouched the Sphinx. From the eyrie of the years the ages had passed unmarked, unnoticed. The sphinx brooded, motionless and dumb.

With patient, scrutinizing attention Tristrem looked in her eyes and at her face. There was no mistake, it was Viola. Was there ever another girl in the world such as she? And this was her secret! Or was there a secret, after all, and might he not have misunderstood?

"Tell me," he said – "I will not praise your picture; in many respects it is above praise – but tell me, is what you said true?"

"Is what true?"

"What you said of the model."

"About her being in the ch?let? Of course it is. Why do you ask?"

"No, not that, tell me – Mr. Yorke, I do not mean to be tragic; if I seem so, forgive me and overlook it. But as you love honor, tell me, is it true that she had a child in this place?"

"Yes, so I heard."

"And you say her name was – "

"Madame Dubois – Dupont – I have forgotten; they can tell you at the bureau. But it seems to me – "

"Thank you," Tristrem answered. "Thank you," he repeated. He hesitated a second and then, with an abrupt good-night, he hurried from the atelier and down the corridor till he reached his room.

Through the open window, the sulphur moon poured in. He looked out in the garden. Beyond, half concealed in the shadows, he could see the outline of the ch?let. And it was there she had hid! He pressed his hands to his forehead; he could not understand. For the moment he felt that if he could lose his reason it would be a grateful release. If only some light would come! He drew a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his face. And then suddenly, as he did so, he caught a spark of that for which he groped. The room turned round, and he sank into a chair.

Yes, he remembered, it was at Bergamo, no, at Bologna. Yes, it was at Bergamo, he remembered perfectly well. He had taken from one of his trunks a coat that he had not worn since he went into mourning. It had been warm that day, and he wanted some thinner clothing. He remembered at the time congratulating himself that he had had the forethought to bring it. And later in the day he had taken from the pocket a handkerchief of a smaller size than that which he habitually used. He had looked at it, and in the corner he had found the Weldon crest. As to how it had come in his possession, he had at the time given no thought. Weldon, in one of his visits, might have left it at Waverley Place, or he himself might have borrowed it when dining at Weldon's house. He was absent-minded, he knew, and apt to be forgetful, and so at the time he had given the matter no further thought. After all, what incident could be more trivial? But now the handkerchief, like a magician's rug, carried him back to Narragansett. As well as he could remember, the last occasion on which he wore that coat was the day on which the butler's telegram had summoned him to town. Then, on learning of his father's death, he had put on other things, of sombrer hue. Harris, without rummaging in the pockets, had folded the coat and put it away. And it had remained folded ever since till the other day at Bologna – no, at Bergamo.

That morning at Narragansett, when he was hurrying into the cottage, the man who had aided Viola home the preceding evening drove up with her hat, with this very handkerchief, and the story of a dream. Aye, and his own dream. So this was Truth. She had pursued him, indeed. He could feel her knees on his arms, her fetid breath in his face. But this time it was not a nightmare. It was the real.

Yes, it was that. One by one he recalled the incidents of the past – incidents on which his mind loathed to dwell, rebelling against its own testimony until he coerced the shuddering memories to his will. There were the numberless times in which he had encountered Weldon coming in or leaving her house, almost haunting it with his presence. There was that wanton lie, and the unexplained and interrupted scene between them. It was then, perhaps, that he had first shown the demon that was in him. And then, afterward, was that meeting on the cars – he with a bruise on his cheek and a gash on his neck. Why was Viola's whip broken, if it were not that she had broken it on his face? Why did the nails of her ungloved hand look as though they had been stained with the juice of berries? Why, indeed, if it were not that she had sunk them in his flesh. Why had he heard her calling "Coward" to the night? It was for this, then, that the engagement had been broken; it was for this that she had hidden herself abroad.

For the first time since his boyhood, he threw himself on the bed and sobbed aloud. To stifle his grief he buried his face in the pillow, and bit it with his teeth. It was more than grief, it was anguish, and it refused to be choked. But presently it did leave him. It left him quivering from head to foot, and in its place came another visitor. An obsession, from which he shrank, surged suddenly, and claimed him for its own. In a combat, of which his heart was the one dumb witness, he battled with it. He struggled with it in a conflict that out-lasted hours; but presumably he coped in vain. The next morning his face was set as a captive's. In a fortnight he was in New York.

XV

The return journey was unmarked by incident or adventure. Nothing less than a smash-up on the railway or the wrecking of the ship would have had the power to distract his thoughts. It may even be that his mind was unoccupied, empty as is a vacant bier, and yet haunted by an overmastering obsession. The ordinary functions of the traveller he performed mechanically, with the air and manner of a subject acting under hypnotic suggestion. One who crossed the ocean with him has since said that the better part of the time the expression of his face was that of utter vacuity. He would remain crouched for hours, in the same position, a finger just separating the lips, and then he would start with the tremor of one awakening from a debauch.

Mrs. Manhattan, who was returning with spoils from the Rue de la Paix, asked him one afternoon, as he happened to descend the cabin-stair in her company, where he had passed the winter.

"Yes, indeed," Tristrem answered, and went his way unconcernedly.

Mrs. Manhattan complained of this conduct to Nicholas, her husband, alleging that the young man was fatuous in his impertinence.

"My dear," returned that wise habitu? of the Athen?um, "when a man gives away seven million, it is because he has forgotten how to be conventional."

It was on a Sunday that the ship reached New York, and it was late in the afternoon before the passengers were able to disembark. Tristrem had his luggage passed, and expressed to his grandfather's house, and then, despite the aggressive solicitations of a crew of bandits, started up-town on foot. In the breast-pocket of his coat he carried a purchase which he had made in Naples, a fantastic article which he had bought, not because he wanted it, but because the peddler who pestered him with wares and offers happened to be the best-looking and most unrebuffably good-natured scoundrel that he had ever encountered. And now, at intervals, as he walked along, he put his hand to the pocket to assure himself that it was still in place. Presently he reached Broadway. That thoroughfare, which on earlier Sundays was wont to be one of the sedatest avenues of the city, was starred with globes of azure light, and its quiet was broken by the passing of orange-colored cars. On the corner he stopped and looked at his watch. It was after seven. Then, instead of continuing his way up-town, he turned down in the direction of the Battery. His head was slightly bent, and as he walked he had the appearance of one perplexed. It was a delightful evening. The sky was as blue as the eyes of a girl beloved. The air was warm, and had the street been less noisy, less garish, and a trifle cleaner it might have been an agreeable promenade. But to Tristrem the noise, the dirt, the glare, the sky itself were part and parcel of the non-existent. He neither saw nor heeded, and, though the air was warm, now and then he shivered.

It seemed to him impossible that he should do this thing. And yet, since that night at Riva, his mind had been as a stage in which it was in uninterrupted rehearsal. If it were unsuccessful, then come what sorrow could. But even though its success were assured, might not the success be worse than failure, and viler to him than the most ignoble defeat? Meditatively he looked at his hand; it was slight as a girl's.

"I cannot," he said, and even as he said it he knew that he would. Had he not said it ten thousand times of times before? It was not what he willed, it was what he must. He was in the lap of a necessity from which, struggle as he might, he could not set himself free. He might make what resolutions he chose, but the force which acted on him and in him snuffed them out like candles. And yet, what had he done to fate that it should impel him to this? Why had he been used as he had? What wrong had he committed? For the past twelvemonth his life had been a continuous torture. Truly, he could have said, "no one save myself, in all the world, has learned the acuity of pain. I alone am its depository."

"And yet," he mused, "perhaps it is right. Long ago, when I was comparing my nothingness to her beauty, did I not know that to win her I must show myself worthy of the prize? She will think that I am when I tell her. Yes, she must think so when it is done. But will it be done? O God, I cannot."

For the instant he felt as though he must turn to the passers and claim their protection from himself. He had stopped again, and was standing under a great pole that supported an electric light. In the globe was a dim, round ball of red, and suddenly it flared up into a flame of the palest lemon, edged with blue. "It is my courage," he said, "I have done with hesitation now." He hailed and boarded a passing car. "Hesitation, indeed!" he repeated. "As if I had not known all through that when the time came there would be none!" He put his hand again to his breast-pocket; it was there.

He had taken the seat nearest to the door, absently, as he would have taken any other, and the conductor found it necessary to touch him on the shoulder before he could extract the fare. He had no American money, he discovered, and would have left the car had not the conductor finally agreed to take his chances with a small piece of foreign gold, though not, however, until he had bit it tentatively with his teeth. It was evident that he viewed Tristrem with suspicion.

At Twentieth Street Tristrem swung himself from the moving vehicle, and turned into Gramercy Park. He declined to think; the rehearsals were over, he did not even try to recall the r?le. He had had a set speech, but it was gone from him as the indecision had gone before. Now he was to act.

He hurried up the stoop of Weldon's house and rang the bell, and as there seemed to him some unnecessary delay, he rang again, not violently, but with the assurance of a creditor who has come to be paid. But when at last the door was opened, he learned that Weldon was not at home.

As he went down the steps again there came to him a great gust and rush of joy. He would go now, he had been fully prepared, he had tried his best. If Weldon had been visible, he would not have hesitated. But he had not been; that one chance had been left them both, and now, with a certitude that had never visited his former indecisions, he felt it was written that that deed should never be done. He gasped as one gasps who has been nearly stifled. The obsession was gone. He was free.

In the street he raised his arms to testify to his liberty reconquered. Yet, even as they fell again, he knew that he was tricking himself. A tremor beset him, and to steady himself he clutched at an area-rail. Whether he stood there one minute or one hour he could not afterward recall. He remembered only that while he loitered Weldon had rounded the corner, and that as he saw him approach, jauntily, in evening dress, a light coat on his arm, his strength returned.

"Royal," he exclaimed, for the man was passing him without recognition. "Royal," he repeated, and Weldon stopped. "I have come to have a word with you."

The voice in which he spoke was so unlike his own, so rasping and defiant, that Weldon, with the dread which every respectable householder has of a scene at his own front door, motioned him up the steps. "Come in," he said, mellifluously, "I am glad to see you."

"I will," Tristrem answered, in a tone as arrogant as before.

"I am sorry," Weldon continued, "Nanny – "

"I did not come to see your wife; you know it."

Weldon had unlatched the door, and the two men passed into the sitting-room. There Weldon, with his hat unremoved, dropped in a chair, and eyed his visitor with affected curiosity.

"I say, Trissy, you're drunk."

"I am come," Tristrem continued, and this time as he spoke his voice seemed to recover something of its former gentleness, "I am come to ask whether, in the purlieus of your heart, there is nothing to tell you how base you are."

Weldon stretched himself languidly, took off his hat, stood up, and lit a cigarette. "Have an Egyptian?" he asked.

"Do you remember," Tristrem went on, "the last time I saw you?"

Weldon tossed the match into an ash-receiver, and, with the cigarette between his teeth, sprawled himself out on a sofa. "Well, what of it?"

"When I saw you, you had just contracted a debt. And now you can liquidate that debt either by throwing yourself in the river or – "

"Charming, Triss, charming! You have made a bon mot. I will get that off. Liquidate a debt with water is really good. There's the advantage of foreign travel for you."

"Do you know what became of your victim? Do you know? She went abroad and hid herself. Shall I give you details?"

For the first time Weldon scowled.

"Would you like the details?" Tristrem repeated.

Weldon mastered his scowl. "No," he answered, negligently. "I am not a midwife. Obstetrics do not interest me. On the contra – "

That word he never finished. Something exploded in his brain, he saw one fleeting flash, and he was dead. Even as he spoke, Tristrem had whipped an instrument from his pocket, and before Weldon was aware of his purpose, a knife, thin as a darning-needle and long as a pencil – a knife which it had taken the splendid wickedness of medi?val Rome to devise – had sunk into his heart, and was out again, leaving behind it a pin's puncture through the linen, one infinitesimal bluish-gray spot on the skin, and death.

Tristrem looked at him. The shirt was not even rumpled. If he had so much as quivered, the quiver had been imperceptible, and on the knife there was no trace of blood. It fell from his fingers; he stooped to pick it up, but his hand trembled so that, on recovering it, he could not insert the point into the narrow sheath that belonged to it, and, throwing the bit of embroidered leather in a corner, he put the weapon in his pocket.

"It was easier than I thought," he mused. "I suppose – h'm – I seem to be nervous. It's odd. I feared that afterward I should collapse like an omelette souffl?e. And to think that it is done!"

He turned suspiciously, and looked at the body again. No, he could see it was really done. "And so, this is afterward," he continued. "And to think that it was here I first saw her. She came in that door there. I remember I thought of a garden of lilies."

From the dining-room beyond he caught the glimmer of a lamp. He crossed the intervening space, and on the sideboard he found some decanters. He selected one, and pouring a little of its contents into a tumbler he drank it off. Then he poured another portion, and when he had drunk that too, he went out, not through the sitting-room, but through the hall, and, picking up the hat which on entering he had thrown on the table, he left the house.



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